By Leslee Kulba
Last week, Buncombe County adopted Stay Home – Stay Safe guidelines that were superseded by Governor Roy Cooper’s Executive Stay at Home Order (Executive Order No. 121). As of press time, there are now rumblings that the federal government is considering making everybody wear surgical masks, the supply of which is still too small to meet the needs of hospitals.
On March 10, Cooper first signed Executive Order No. 116, which declared a state of emergency, urging citizens to maintain a social distance of six feet and limit gatherings to 10 people. Then, on March 27, citing 763 cases across 60 counties stretching the resources of hospital staff, the governor issued four more executive orders. No. 121 is the one affecting how citizens will go about their lives through April 29, at least.
The “stay at home” in the title greatly exaggerates what is in the document, although people really serious about containing a pandemic are doing just that. The order begins saying, “All individuals currently in the State of North Carolina are ordered to stay at home, their place of residence, or current place of abode, except as allowed by this executive order.” The remainder of the document lists exemptions.
Leaving home is allowed for “essential activities,” which most people would guess include procuring food, cleaning supplies, medicine, and medical attention. Walking pets and caring for those who cannot help themselves are also deemed essential. From there, the list expands to include the procurement of office supplies needed to work from home or operate “essential businesses,” observing social distancing rules.
People are allowed to go to and from church, provided no more than 10 congregate in a building simultaneously. They are also allowed to comply with transferring dependents under visitation and custody arrangements. Going out to volunteer for a nonprofit is deemed an essential activity, as is enjoying the outdoors. Unfortunately, all the great places the document recommends for getting fresh air and exercise have since been closed. Persons experiencing homelessness or domestic violence are exempt.
To support essential activities, essential businesses are enumerated, with orders to compel employees to work from home inasmuch as possible. All other businesses are ordered ceased, but the definition of “ceased” allows for the continuation of “Minimum Basic Operations,” which are defined as, “the minimum necessary activities to maintain the value of the business’s inventory, preserve the condition of the business’s physical plant and equipment, ensure security, process payroll and employee benefits, or related functions;” and/or, “the minimum necessary activities to facilitate employees of the business being able to continue to work remotely from their residences.”
Thirty classes of businesses are considered essential. Listed first is any organization that observes mandated social distancing. Also high on the list are businesses vital to combatting the coronavirus. These include health-promoting operations, which could be anything from retailing dietary supplements to biotech research and everything up and down the supply chain, as well as human services, providing anything from daycare to vocational training. Essential infrastructure operations, which could be hospital construction or stormwater mitigation, may continue or begin anew, and each government body is to use its discretion in determining which services are essential and who must work from home.
Vendors of groceries and household goods, as well as their supply chains, of course, will continue operating, as will restaurants arranging for carryout or delivery. Convenience stores and soup kitchens may also remain open. Drug stores, ranging from Walgreen’s to Octopus Garden, are allowed to continue retailing as well, the document exempting “medication not requiring a medical prescription.” Stores may also continue selling alcoholic beverages.
A hodgepodge of additional exemptions include veterinary and kenneling services (but not pet grooming); laundromats; hardware stores; gas stations, auto shops, and businesses servicing bicycles and boats; providers of transportation, from Uber to airlines, with trains and buses operating and observing social distancing “to the greatest extent feasible;” businesses needed to maintain the safety of households and employing plumbers, HVAC repairers, landscapers, and painters; surveying, architectural, and real estate outfits; media outlets; financial institutions, running from pawnbrokers to futures exchanges, and insurance agencies; shipping companies, including the postal service, and warehousing; hotels; military contractors; educational institutions; and mortuary services, who may allow up to 50 at a funeral, provided social distancing is observed.
Persons deeming their businesses essential but not listed should file a request for exemption with the North Carolina Department of Revenue. Doing so will allow them to operate legally until they receive instruction from the state. If counties enact stricter guidelines, those guidelines will control.
How Is Buncombe Different?
Buncombe County’s orders went into effect before the state’s. Still, the two documents are very similar in structure. The nuances, in many instances, reflect better English and logic applied to worse principles on the part of Buncombe.
Most notable is the way the document looks more effective than a moratorium on the local tourist trade. All visitors from “areas experiencing community transmission of COVID-19” are required to self-quarantine for 14 days “before entering the community.” Furthermore, “all lodging facilities, including campgrounds, with rentals or leases for less than one month in duration,” are ordered closed. Exemptions are granted for lodging for persons coming to the area employed to combat the virus, quarantine housing, or persons already lodged, as they would be grandfathered-in.
Chilling for adherents to freedom of religion is the mandate that, “Religious and worship services may only be provided by video and teleconference. Religious institutions must limit in-person staff to ten people or less [sic] when preparing for or conducting video or teleconference services,” and all performers on the set have to follow social-distancing guidelines. Strict adherence would end all home services, prevent the blessing of the bread and wine in some congregations, or even ruin weddings for people who don’t want a TV screen officiating their special day.
Also, more tightly constraining human interactions than the state order are provisions that anybody who has tested positive “or has signs and symptoms consistent with COVID-19” self-quarantine along with other household members if public health officials so advise. “Nonessential visitors” to long-term institutional residences are banned unless they are going to participate in “critical assistance” or an “end-of-life visitation.” While Cooper encouraged people to enjoy public parks as long as they don’t use playground equipment, Buncombe County closed all its public parks and greenways.
Buncombe’s document is more restrictive on professional activities, exempting lawyers and accountants only, “when necessary to assist in compliance with legally mandated activities, contractual obligations, and end of life directives.” Both the state and the county are nebulous about what constitutes an elective medical procedure and largely leave the decision to the discretion of practitioners.
Quirky little differences include Buncombe’s explicit exemption of “big-box stores” and “bodegas” among retailers. Buncombe grants an exception to the carryout order to cafeterias and restaurants located in medical facilities. And, while the authors probably didn’t notice, the state gives exemption to all media outlets. In contrast, the county specifically orders all but news outlets shut.
Buncombe’s document also provides a couple of incentives for those trying to be a part of the solution. One is it explicitly states anybody retooling to provide ventilators, surgical masks, or hand sanitizer for the relief effort will automatically be exempt. The order also lifts all restrictions on delivery hours affecting the movement of critical supplies.
It Could Be Worse
Saturday, Graham County Manager Rebecca Garland reported roadblocks and checkpoints were fully operational. Select highways were barricaded, and officials were questioning motorists about their motives. Sheriff Joseph Jones indicated he would be working his staff in 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, to cover the checkpoints, but would also likely need help from civilians.
Government workers, including police and fire, as well as persons conducting legitimate commerce, were allowed to pass in and out. Persons following either of two detours routed by state and national departments of transportation would be allowed to pass as long as they traveled through the county and did not stop. Residents were allowed to pass with a driver’s license showing their current address, and nonresident business owners were issued travel permits. All others would be turned around. The county advised all to expect delays.
County Chair Dale Wiggins announced a local state of emergency March 21. He explained the county had no hospital, ran only two ambulances, and couldn’t risk one of its paramedics getting sick. On Facebook, where the county has been posting updates on the state of emergency, Wiggins apologized for what he called “drastic steps” that would force some people out of their jobs for a time and promised the county would provide online links to unemployment aid.