Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
Four states border North Carolina: Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. And, since Macon County is located in the western corner of North Carolina, one can drive only a few miles and cross into Georgia and South Carolina – going east – and into Tennessee, traveling a little farther west. Thus, how each state is responding to the current COVID-19 crisis and how and when each state’s governor might ease mandated stay-at-home orders and quarantine restrictions is of importance to Macon County residents.
The number of cases across North Carolina reached 9,142 on Monday, according to North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. North Carolina is reporting 306 deaths, 109,920 completed tests, and 473 people currently in the hospital.
Gov. Roy Cooper and the state’s coronavirus task force announced a statewide stay-at-home executive order, #121, on March 27, which is currently in effect. On Thursday, April 23, Gov. Cooper presented through a press briefing his latest mandate, which is to extend stay-at-home in North Carolina until at least May 8. Dine-in restaurants and bars, hair salons, movie theaters, and others, as outlined in his previously signed executive order, will not be allowed to open until sometime after May 8.
“Our state is not ready to lift restrictions yet,” Cooper said on April 23. “We need more time to slow the spread of the virus.” Even though he pointed out that North Carolina is “flattening the curve” where COVID-19 is concerned, he added, “This decision is based on data. I know people want their lives and their livelihoods back, but first we need to hit certain metrics because the health and safety of North Carolinians is our number-one priority.”
He said his three-stage plan is based on expert input and current data. Details of the plan include: 1) Stay-at-home will be modified so that more retailers and businesses will be open – even though social distancing will still need to be implemented; mass gatherings will be limited; parks will reopen; and, confined communities such as nursing homes will still be restricted; 2) After a few weeks of hitting data benchmarks, houses of worship, restaurants, and bars can reopen as long as they operate at reduced capacity; 3) After several more weeks of hitting benchmarks, restrictions on all entertainment venues, mass gatherings, houses of worship, places housing vulnerable populations, etc. will be lifted.
Cooper explained that the three-stage plan may involve backtracking if COVID-19 health dangers increase.
“We won’t go back to how we lived before February anytime soon. But we will rebuild the damage this virus has done to our state,” he maintained. “[N.C] will tap that resiliency to look out for each other.”
Cooper’s plan to lift stay-at-home restrictions is considered more conservative than some governors, while Georgia’s governor has received both praise and criticism for becoming one of the first U.S. governors to take a more aggressive approach to establishing business as usual.
Gov. Brian P. Kemp had announced on Monday, April 20, “As of noon today, we now have 18,947 COVID-19 cases in Georgia with 733 deaths. The state lab has processed 5,362 tests, and commercial vendors have processed 78,966 tests. … Our prayers remain with the victims and their loved ones. We lift up those who are battling this terrible virus. We remain focused on the safety and well-being of every person who calls Georgia home. …
“Informed by the Coronavirus Task Force and public health officials, ‘Opening Up America Again’ includes three phases to safely reopen and get folks back to work. To initiate Phase One, a state must meet a series of basic criteria. . … For weeks now, our state has taken targeted action to prevent, detect, and address the spread of coronavirus by leveraging data and advice from health officials in the public and private sectors. Thanks to this methodical approach and the millions of Georgians who have worked diligently to slow the spread of coronavirus, we are on track to meet the gating criteria for Phase One. …
“In the same way that we carefully closed businesses and urged operations to end to mitigate the virus’ spread, today, we are announcing plans to incrementally – and safely – reopen sectors of our economy. …
“Given the favorable data, enhanced testing, and approval of our healthcare professionals, we will allow gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, body art studios, barbers, cosmetologists, hair designers, nail care artists, estheticians, their respective schools, and massage therapists to reopen their doors this Friday, April 24, 2020. Unlike other businesses, these entities have been unable to manage inventory, deal with payroll, and take care of administrative items while we shelter in place. This measure allows them to undertake baseline operations that most other businesses in the state have maintained since I issued the shelter-in-place order. …
“Subject to specific social distancing and sanitation mandates, theaters, private social clubs, and restaurant dine-in services will be allowed to reopen on Monday, April 27. Bars, nightclubs, operators of amusement park rides, and live performance venues will remain closed. In the days ahead, we will be evaluating the data and conferring with public health officials to determine the best course of action for those establishments. By taking this measured action, we will get Georgians back to work safely without undermining the progress that we have all made in the battle against COVID-19. …”
On April 20, Gov. Henry McMaster issued Executive Order 2020-28, which removes restrictions on public access points to the state’s beaches, public piers, docks, and wharfs, while delegating to local officials the authority to restrict access, as they see fit.
This order also re-opens retail stores that were closed pursuant to Executive Order 2020-18. The businesses to be reopened are a:
– Furniture and home-furnishings stores
– Clothing, shoe, and clothing-accessory stores
– Jewelry, luggage, and leather goods stores
– Department stores, with the exception of hardware and home-improvement stores
– Sporting goods stores
– Book, craft, and music stores
– Flea markets
– Florists and flower stores
All other businesses previously closed by executive order will remain closed until further notice.
Under the order, retail stores reopened Monday, April 20, at 5 p.m., but they still must adhere to strict social distancing requirements, operating at 20% occupancy or five (5) customers per 1,000 square feet, whichever is less. In addition, businesses must not knowingly allow customers to congregate within six feet of one another, excluding families, and follow relevant CDC and DHEC guidelines.
However, on April 27, Gov. McMaster issued Executive Order 2020-29, which declares a state of emergency throughout the state and allows for the state’s response to COVID-19 – and the ever-evolving challenges the pandemic presents – to continue. After issuing Executive Order 2020-29, Gov. McMaster stated: “South Carolina continues to fight this deadly virus with every asset and resource available. While we are making progress, we must remain vigilant with expanding prevention and testing efforts. Our state is also facing an economic disruption and emergency the likes of which we’ve never seen, and we are working tirelessly to get our businesses back up and running and our people back to work as soon and as safely as possible.”
On Friday, April 24, Gov. Bill Lee issued the first steps from the “Tennessee Pledge,” the state’s rollout of guidance and best practices for Tennessee businesses in 89 of the state’s 95 counties to keep employees and customers safe during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The first industries to receive guidance through the plan include the restaurant and retail industries.
Lee said the April 24 announcement is the first step in a phased reopening of the state’s economy, which entails rebooting industries as they are safe to pursue in 89 of the state’s 95 counties. Lee announced Tennessee restaurants and retailers were able to reopen Monday at 50 percent occupancy. The state recommends that employees in both industries wear cloth face coverings and that business owners follow federal guidelines for hygiene and workplace sanitation standards related to the pandemic.
“Like the rest of the country, Tennessee has taken an unprecedented economic hit with families and small businesses feeling the most pain,” Lee said. “We must stay vigilant as a state, continue to practice social distancing, and engage in best practices at our businesses so that we can stay open.”