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Panel on reopening for business sees guidelines for operations

One marker of how hard the coronavirus has whacked Henderson County's economy comes from the work of the small business center at Blue Ridge Community College.


“We ranked No. 2 in the state next to Charlotte in the number of small businesses we have assisted over the last four weeks,” BRCC President Laura Leatherwood told Henderson County’s Post-Covid-19 Task Force on Friday.

The second meeting of the 22-member panel of business owners the Board of Commissioners appointed to recommend guidance for reopening the economy came one day after Gov. Roy Cooper extended the statewide stay-at-home order to May 8 and set out conditions for a gradual reopening of restaurants, shops, personal services and other businesses.

Cooper’s order “was somewhat of a surprise to us,” said Commissioner Bill Lapsley, who cochairs the Post-Covid committee with Commissioner Rebecca McCall. “What it clearly says to us was the governor wants to continue to control the reopening of the economy of our state and our local communities.”

The county’s request to the governor expressed “our desire to control our own destiny,” Lapsley said. “We’ve not heard back from the governor and quite frankly I don’t expect we will but clearly his actions show that he does not appear to support, as far we’re concerned, local government having any control over this situation.”

When Cooper describes conditions that are needed to ease restrictions, “the implication is he might extend it again until the end of May and I don’t know as a community that we can survive that extended period,” Lapsley said. “I’ve got some frustration with that.”

Leatherwood described BRCC's work on multiple fronts to teach critical health care provider courses, guide small businesses and prepare for a projected surge in fall enrollment of people who have lost their jobs and four-year college students whose families can no longer afford high tuition.

“The college is not closed and we’ve never been closed,” she said. “However, our definition of open has certainly changed."

The college continues to offer courses. Exempt from the shutdown are courses in nursing, nurse aid, medical assistants, EMT, paramedic, law enforcement and  emergency management — jobs that support front-line health care providers, hospitals and emergency operations.

The college president said the surge in unemployment is the biggest she’s seen in her 27 years of  community college service. BRCC’s small business center has been helping clients apply for SBA loans and other forms of stimulus funding and offering guidance for “how they can make it through these tough times and come out on the other side,” she said.

Guidelines for reopening

County planners presented the results of a survey that 250 businesses took starting Tuesday afternoon. A majority of respondents thought the county should provide standard guidelines to businesses for reopening. The greatest concerns were the spread or resurgence of the virus, lack of adherence to guidelines, reopening too soon, inadequate resources to institute all the protections needed, a lack of information, misinformation and desire for flexibility, “not a one size fits all.”

Lapsley assured the business owners and factory managers that commissioners are not interested in policing businesses’ compliance with county guidelines.

“We feel like the commissioners don’t need to be in a position of telling businesses how many people they should have in their business space, how they should deal with employees, but that the commissioners should focus on more general guidelines and recommendations at this point in the process and then in the next week or so as we get closer to the end of the executive order we would expect to maybe see about getting down in the weeds a little bit, similar to what other states have done with particularly industry groups,” he said.

Commissioners instead want “to do what we can to give advice and how we as a community should react to dealing with this situation. We won’t want to get into the nitty gritty details” of the reopening process.

Based on a review of comments, concerns and suggestions from the business owners received this week and on public health guidelines, the county distilled the information into nine guidelines for reopening in a way that protects employees and customers:

  1. Maintain social distancing as outlined by the CDC.
  2. Wear personal protective equipment including masks when interacting with people.
  3. Implement daily, ongoing sanitation processes.
  4. Limit personal contact for the protection of employees and customers.
  5. Use screening practices and monitoring for all employees.
  6. Implement continuous hand washing or use of approved hand sanitizer between public interactions.
  7. Review daily business functions to identify innovative ways to reduce the risk of infection.
  8. Post requirements for customers at the entry point of businesses.
  9. Monitor any changes in regulations issued by federal, state or local governments.

Only 16 Covid cases at Pardee

Pardee UNC Health CEO Jay Kirby praised the group for taking the threat seriously.

“Don’t change anything that you’re doing,” he said, “but don’t be so scared that you become paralyzed because we have people working day in and day out in this hospital who have only seen 16 people come into this hospital with Covid who have been admitted.” Just four employees have contracted the virus.

Someone asked how many of the 16 had been discharged.
“Most of the folks that have passed away pretty much come here to do that,” he said. “Everybody that’s passed away also has a do not resuscitate order. The average age of the people that are dying is 83.”

“So if I’m the camp industry, I’m not as worried about it. If I’m a parent I’m not as concerned about my child maybe getting out of a metropolitan area and going to the mountains, because it’s not afflicting the 18 and under. It’s not terribly afflicting the 18 to 45, which is many of the workers and part-time workers you folks are using. And I don’t know how many of the 75 and above population that are in these assisted living facilities are showing up at your businesses. Only 35 people outside of the 156 (cases) are people who don’t live in a nursing home.”

Kirby tried to strike a balance between the needed public guidelines and the wall-to-wall media coverage that focuses on the biggest outbreaks and highest mortality rates.

“All my point is I’m not telling anybody to stand down,” he said. “I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t extend the time. But don’t ruin your business and don’t become paralyzed in fear based on what you see on ABC, CBS and Fox and CNN every night. Look at the data.”