Board declares state of emergency

Ruby Cinemas empty marquee and vacant parking lot. photo by Vickie Carpenter

Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer

Sunset Restaurant dinning room closed. Restaurants are still allowed to offer take out or curb service. photo by Vickie Carpenter

While navigating uncharted territory, the Macon County Board of Commissioners declared a State of Emergency for Macon County during a special called meeting Tuesday afternoon. The purpose of the move was to open up resources and funding, if need be, to combat COVID-19, which the World Health Organization has declared a pandemic. In addition to the State of Emergency, which follows North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper’s order to limit public gatherings to less than 100 people, the county also moved $150,000 from the county’s fund balance into a Disaster Relief Fund line item. 

“Right now we may not need it, but in the event that one of our county departments, whether it be Emergency Services, or the school system, or the health department, comes up with a need, we don’t want them to experience an interruption in their operations,” said Commission Chair Jim Tate. 

Macon County Health Dept. photo by Vickie Carpenter

Macon County Public Health Interim Director Carmine Rocco updated commissioners regarding COVID-19 and local efforts to reduce community spread. According to Rocco, the health department has tested 32 people for the virus, five of which have been returned with a negative result. The remaining 27 individuals have been placed in quarantine within their homes while awaiting test results, which should be returned within a day or two from the state lab. The numbers remain the same as of noon on Wednesday.

Macon County Public Health has created a drive-up clinic for individuals who require screening or further testing. Photos by Vickie Carpenter

The Health Department launched a drive up clinic to reduce staff and patient interaction. Individuals who believe they may have the virus are instructed to call the health department’s help line to answer questions at (828)349-2517. Symptoms for COVID-19 are fever, and other lower respiratory illness or shortness of breath.If the health department deems it necessary, testing will be set up. Rocco said the hospital and private physician offices also have capacity to test individuals. 

One case reported in Macon County

On Sunday afternoon, Macon County Public Health officials were notified by Buncombe County of a positive COVID-19 result in a patient who was isolated in their Macon County residence. On March 10, the individual travelled from New York to Buncombe County, where they began to feel ill. The individual was tested in Buncombe County and then travelled to Macon County via a car rental, and has remained within the residence, complying with all orders and recommendations ever since. The positive test result was found on Sunday and the public was notified Monday morning. According to Rocco, the individual’s exposure to the public, especially in Macon County, was very limited, if any at all. 

“The truth of the matter is, that someone in your family, or someone you know will likely be exposed to the virus before this is all over with,” said Rocco. “We need to be sure to be taking all necessary precautions to limit exposure to stop the spread.” 

Rocco noted that while there is a clearly identified group of people who are most at risk of complications from the virus, it’s important to distinguish that they are more at risk of complications, not of contracting the virus. So while the elderly population is more at risk to experience complications if they contract the virus, they have the same possibility of contracting the virus as anyone. 

Macon County School system takes action

Macon County Schools Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin updated commissioners about school closings and said that as it stands, the district plans to keep calendar dates such as the scheduled Spring Break as well as the anticipated end of the school year. 

“Our teachers are working,” said Dr. Baldwin. “We have set up distance learning and our children are receiving instruction… how that is going to look when this is all over, is still to be determined.” 

Dr. Baldwin said that the school system is also currently developing a plan for the school closure to extend past the initial two weeks. While there is no certainty that it will, state officials are advising a more long-term plan be developed by local districts.

The school system has set up food distribution sites on Tuesday, to provide breakfast and lunch meals for students in need, at no charge, through the school system. School buses are also running their usual routes, beginning at 11, to deliver meals along the routes to families who can not make it to the designated distribution sites.  

 Dr. Baldwin noted that on the first day, 4,282 meals were provided to students, a number he expects to see rise as word spreads of the availability. 

Mountain View Intermediate School – 709 breakfast and 709 lunch

 South Macon Elementary – 616 breakfast and 616 lunch

 Franklin High School – 732 breakfast and 732 lunch

 Highlands School – 30 breakfast and 30 lunch

 Nantahala School – 54 breakfast and 54 lunch

Changes at detention center

Visitors to the detention center are required to call the front desk for assistance and are prohibited initial entry.

Sheriff Robert Holland informed commissioners that the largest change in his department regarding jail visitations. 

“It is easy to say, stop visitation all together, but we don’t want to do that, because that is the only perk or privilege the inmates have, and we don’t want to take that away from them,” said Sheriff Holland. “We have been talking about setting up video conferencing for visitation for a while now, so we have been working with IT to get that up and running so our inmates can still have visitors, although it will be over a video monitor.” 

Holland said that his department will temporarily halt the issue of concealed carry gun permits. 

“We have processed over 500 gun permits or re-certifications so far this year and that is the most traffic we get in and out of our facility,” explained Holland. “We have worked with IT and now those application forms will be available online.” 

Holland said individuals can print the forms online, fill them out, and then are instructed to mail them into the department with a photocopy of the Driver’s License. Once the sheriff’s department does what they have to do on their end, they will then contact the individuals. However, nothing will be processed for at least the next two weeks, as all fingerprinting will be suspended, due to the nature of the person-to-person contact it entails. 

Social Services and Seniors

Department of Social Services Patrick Betancourt told commissioners that all operations at the senior center have been cancelled other than the adult day care and congregate meals. However, the way meals are provided have changed. 

“We are now moving to a deliver, or to-go method to provide those meals,” said Betancourt who reported that 25 meals were provided on Tuesday. Betancourt also said the county’s Meals on Wheels program will continue, but volunteers will limit interaction with homebound seniors and will ring a doorbell or knock, and then leave the meals on the porch. 

EMS preparedness

Warren Cabe noted that Emergency Management is well equipped and staffed with contingency plans in place to continue operations without interruption in the event of losing up to 40 percent of staff. The county veterans offices will be closed for public operations, as it is housed within the Emergency management building. All county parks and recreation facilities such as the Robert C. Carpenter Building are also closed to the public. 

“While all of this may sound drastic and we know it causes some inconvenience, we want people to understand that we have to take these measures to stop the spread of the virus,” said Rocco. “Social distancing is the best defense against this virus.” 

Mayor declares state of emergency for town

Downtown Franklin resembled a ghost town just before noon on Wednesday. photo by Vickie Carpenter

Also on Tuesday, Mayor Bob Scott signed a Declaration of a State of Emergency for the town of Franklin. The document states, in part, that “declaring a state of emergency and imposing the restrictions and prohibitions ordered herein is necessary to maintain order and protect public health, safety and welfare.” It further declares a “local state of emergency for the Town of Franklin in concert with Macon County and further declare that the Emergency Management Plan adopted by Macon County together with all applicable mutual assistance compacts and agreements are in effect and shall remain in effect until this declaration expires or is rescinded. All emergency management personnel are hereby ordered to cooperate in the implementations of the provisions of the county’s Emergency Management Plan and all applicable mutual assistance compacts and agreements and to furnish assistance thereunder.”