Local leaders disagree on whether a COVID-19 directive — amounting to strongly-worded recommendations that can’t be enforced the same as emergency declarations — will have the same success as previous stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of the virus.

The main thrust of this week’s new public health guidance pleads with Mecklenburg County residents to further scale back gatherings, work and school, instead using virtual platforms to stay connected.

Still, Mecklenburg County commissioners’ Chairman George Dunlap says the new local public health directive should “absolutely” help flatten the curve and decelerate worrisome trends. The effect, he said, largely depends on whether residents comply with Public Health Director Gibbie Harris’ latest slate of recommendations.

Others, though, are dubious, as videos continue to circulate on social media of crowded bars in Charlotte with scant mask wearing, plus photos of a busy Charlotte Douglas International Airport throughout Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“While people have not complied, this is an urgent plea to get people to comply,” Dunlap said. “I think what it did, if only for a short while, it got people’s attention.”

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In the frantic hours after Harris unveiled her directive Tuesday afternoon and emphasized dangerously high levels of community spread, Central Piedmont Community College and Queens University announced classes would be delivered online through Feb. 2. Local private schools abruptly canceled next-day in-person learning, with at least one — Charlotte Country Day School — announcing it would stay remote until Jan. 22.

At an emergency meeting Thursday morning, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board will consider the district’s plan to restore some in-person instruction.

“It has been interesting to see the level of angst and concern about the directive,” Harris said during a news conference Wednesday morning. “We wanted people to understand the urgency of the directive … And I am pleased that people are taking it seriously because that is the only way we’re going to make the difference.”

Health officials say the next three weeks are especially precarious, with a deluge of infections and hospitalizations expected in the aftermath of ill-advised holiday gatherings. Projections show Mecklenburg’s caseload will remain high through mid-February, Harris has said.

But some county commissioners, in interviews with The Charlotte Observer Wednesday, say they are skeptical Harris’ directive can effectively blunt the explosive growth of cases seen in recent weeks. More stringent measures could be inevitable if the sheer volume of cases threatens to overwhelm healthcare workers, commissioners said.

”The more people that we get to cooperate and participate, the better off the community will be,” Commissioner Mark Jerrell said. “Everyone was sounding the alarm as we were going into the holiday. This is our worst nightmare come true.”

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‘More of the same’

On average over the last week, Mecklenburg is adding nearly 900 new infections daily, which is more than triple the caseload from mid-November, an Observer analysis of public health data shows.

In that same time span, the positivity rate has nearly doubled and hospitalizations have tripled, easily shattering records notched during the July coronavirus peak. Atrium Health and Novant Health say there is still more they can do to increase bed capacity — though staffing limits provide a bigger hurdle.

COVID-19 numbers will only keep increasing if people refuse to follow state and county guidelines, said Melinda Forthofer, a UNC Charlotte public health professor who specializes in social epidemiology.

“Folks need to buckle in and brace themselves for a first quarter — at least — of 2021, that is still very, very far from what we would call normal,” Forthofer said. “We’ve got to get control of the COVID curve. We’ve got to get vaccines distributed. We’ve got to persuade people to take advantage of the vaccine. And when all of that is happening really thoroughly, we will be in a much better place.”

County officials say 665 residents have died of coronavirus-related complications. As fatalities and infections become increasingly prevalent, Dunlap said more residents will be personally impacted by the pandemic — perhaps, in turn, spurring more vigilance to coronavirus safeguards.

Harris’ guidelines — which the health director said are “very strong recommendations” but not an enforceable order, like the governor’s mask mandate — also ask people to avoid non-essential travel, remain at home between 10 p.m-5 a.m., and avoid recreational activities that could involve close contact with others. Under the state’s modified stay-at-home order, there’s already an enforceable curfew but travel, recreation and businesses are largely open, albeit with capacity limitations and social distancing requirements.

Like guidance from state officials, Harris’ directive advises residents ages 65 and older, as well as high-risk individuals, to avoid leaving their homes and to use grocery delivery services. Harris said people should quarantine and get tested if they’ve been exposed to COVID-19 or are experiencing potential symptoms.

“I’m not hopeful — to be really honest — that it will make a difference,” Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell said of Mecklenburg’s order. “I think it’s really more of the same, but just asking again. It’s just impossible to get through to people.”

Jerrell said it’s important to remember that individual actions — and “callous” violations of coronavirus safeguards — create ripple effects throughout the community.

“I think at this point, if you’re not taking this thing seriously by now, you’re not prone to taking it seriously moving forward,” Jerrell said. “The sad part about that is you’re putting everyone else at risk.”

But as County Manager Dena Diorio sees it, the directive is supposed to “mobilize the community to do additional compliance as it relates to COVID.”

Leaders from both of Charlotte’s major hospital systems once again urged Mecklenburg residents this week to not let their guards down.

“We need your help,” Dr. David Callaway, chief of operational and disaster medicine at Atrium Health, said in a video Wednesday. “We need you to keep wearing your masks. We need you to keep washing your hands. And we need you to physically distance.”

Looming COVID restrictions?

As the Mecklenburg public health director, Harris has the authority to issue isolation orders for people infected with COVID-19, as well as quarantine orders for people exposed to the virus, according to state statute, explained in a UNC School of Government blog post. Local health directors also may issue hazard abatement orders against specific organizations or businesses when planned or past events present high risks for virus transmission, as was done in Charlotte in October when Harris ordered the temporary closure of a church.

But more sweeping regulations that could shutter businesses and limit movement require approval from mayors or governing bodies. Some activities that weren’t allowed last April, such as eating indoors at a restaurant or visiting a museum, are still open for now.

“This is (Gibbie’s) best attempt to telegraph to the community that we are at the most dangerous stage that we’ve ever been in,” Commissioner Leigh Altman said. “No public official wants to have to shut down commerce because we have so many businesses that are teetering on the edge as it is.”

Tryon Street between Fifth and Sixth streets in uptown hosted on-street dining to aid struggling businesses.
Tryon Street between Fifth and Sixth streets in uptown hosted on-street dining to aid struggling businesses.

Mecklenburg’s stay-at-home order from last spring was signed by Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles and county commissioners’ chairman Dunlap, as well as the mayors of Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville, Matthews, Mint Hill and Pineville. (Individual City Council members and county commissioners did not vote on enacting emergency declarations.)

Mayors can also take action within their individual town or city limits. But Mecklenburg officials are wary of patchwork rules that could cause confusion and lax behaviors among neighboring communities, Dunlap said.

If the county’s numbers don’t improve by the expiration of Mecklenburg’s health directive, Dunlap said he is “not leaning one way or another” when contemplating the prospects of another lockdown. Lyles has repeatedly said she will follow Harris’ guidance.

“We have an economy that would virtually collapse if everything closes up,” Dunlap said. “Yet we have this virus that continues to rage because people interact with people who don’t live in the same household. I will tell you: I am certainly torn.”

Hannah Smoot contributed to this report.

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