Mecklenburg County issues stay-at-home order

Brett Jensen
March 24, 2020 - 4:34 pm
AP Photo/Gerry Broome

AP Photo/Gerry Broome

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Leaders of North Carolina’s largest county have approved a “stay-at-home” order for residents in and around Charlotte, where the number of cases of the new coronavirus has taken off compared to the rest of the state.

Starting at 8 a.m. Thursday, the 1.1 million residents of Mecklenburg County largely must stay in their homes except for going to grocery and drug stores, making medical appointments and exercising. People can still get restaurant to-go food and deliveries, in keeping with statewide restrictions already in place.

Those whose work is deemed essential in the order, signed by leaders of Mecklenburg County, Charlotte and in-county municipalities, can continue to travel to and from their jobs. Violating the order can be a misdemeanor.

The number of positive cases in North Carolina counted by state health officials on Tuesday was roughly 400, with just over 100 of those in Mecklenburg County. But Mecklenburg Health Director Gibbie Harris, who announced the order, now says the county’s total has exceeded 140.

“We must act based on what we are seeing on the ground in our community,” Harris said in a release. “This extra step will keep more people away from each other and begin to flatten the rate of new cases before the hospital system becomes overwhelmed.”

More than 15 states have some kind of “stay-at-home” or “shelter-in-place” order that generally have closed all but essential businesses. North Carolina isn’t among them, and professional and trade groups are weighing in on if and when that’s necessary. But Mecklenburg County leaders believe there’s no time to wait.

“It is evident that too many people are not taking this pandemic seriously enough — that’s just the fact,” board Commissioner Trevor Fuller said during a commission meeting to discuss the order. “You can go into almost any place in this county and see crowds of people.”

The actions in the county, where more than 10% of North Carolina residents live, comes as state government has been sticking to incremental expanded business closings, tightened assembly limitations and health care system preparations to blunt the spread of COVID-19.

Gov. Roy Cooper issued new orders this week closing several categories of entertainment and personal service establishments by late Wednesday afternoon. Schools are now closed through mid-May and gatherings of more than 50 will now be unlawful. Previously schools were being closed for two weeks and the mass assembly threshold was over 100.

“Clearly this is an unprecedented situation for the people of our state,” Cooper said on Tuesday during a conference call with other statewide elected executive branch officials known as the Council of State. Cooper’s administration says the advice of public health leaders doesn’t warrant such a drastic order right now. He said the state is preparing for what could be ahead.

“We’re coming up with an option for every single scenario, and all of that is on the table right now,” Cooper said Monday. “And we want to make sure that the public is protected.”

No deaths have been reported in North Carolina. There have been about 30 people hospitalized so far, state Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said.

The growth in positive cases comes as the number of completed tests in North Carolina has exceeded 10,000, Cooper said. He said an additional 13,000 tests are pending, with Burlington-based Laboratory Corp. of America heavily involved in completing them.

Attached to the expanded order in Mecklenburg County was a letter from the CEOs of the Atrium and Novant health systems urging a countywide stay-at-home order. The North Carolina Healthcare Association, representing the state’s hospitals, also penned a letter Monday asking Cooper to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order.

“We cannot afford to be led by a false sense of security created by a low number of confirmed cases,” association CEO Steve Lawler wrote, adding that personal protective equipment and supplies are running low in nearly every region of North Carolina.

The North Carolina Chamber’s top leader said “a complete shutdown would have a devastating impact” and praised state leaders for taking a disciplined approach, as the state does during natural disasters.

“Acting on decades of experience and avoiding a shelter-in-place will position us to rise from this crisis and begin to rebuild once it has passed,” Chamber CEO Gary Salamido wrote over the weekend.

The state’s workforce already has felt the sting of business retractions, including last week’s closings of restaurants and bars for dine-in activities amid the global pandemic.

The number of new unemployment claims with the state continued to spike on Tuesday, as more than 139,000 have been filed since March 16, including another 26,000 on Monday. More than 85% of filings are related to COVID-19, the Division of Employment Security said.

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