The Latest: This week's updates on COVID-19

Body

The restrictions on North Carolina residents are beginning to loosen this week, as the state moves into the first phase of Governor Roy Cooper’s three-phased reduction of executive orders issued in March to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
North Carolina entered phase one of the plan on May 8 at 5 p.m., leading to several key changes for businesses and residents across the state.
The order removes the distinction between essential and non-essential businesses, allowing retail establishments to open at 50 percent capacity. Customers in these businesses are required to practice 6-foot social distancing guidelines, and businesses are required to perform frequent cleanings, provide hand sanitizer when available and screen employees for symptoms.
Use of masks is still recommended when in public, according to the order.
While many businesses are reopening on a limited basis, certain types of establishments will remain shuttered throughout phase one – personal care businesses, bars, entertainment establishments and gyms will remain closed, and restaurants will continue to be restricted to serving only drive-through or take-out orders.
The order allows small, outdoor gatherings, but a 10-person limit is still in place throughout phase one.
The beginning of phase one is intended to balance the economic needs of the state with the ongoing risk of spreading the infection, Cooper said in a release.
“COVID-19 is still a serious threat to our state, and Phase 1 is designed to be a limited easing of restrictions that can boost parts of our economy while keeping important safety rules in place,” he said. “This is a careful and deliberate first step, guided by the data, and North Carolinians still must use caution while this virus is circulating.”
 

Metrics for success
The further reduction of restrictions is based on the improvement of several key numbers, according to Cooper’s office. Currently, there are four numbers being tracked to determine whether the phase-in can continue:
1. Trajectory in COVID-like illness surveillance in the past 14 days – North Carolina’s syndromic surveillance has had a downward trend in the past two weeks
2. Trajectory of lab-confirmed cases over 14 days – North Carolina’s lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 has seen a slight upward trend in the past two weeks
3. Trajectory in percent of tests returning positive over 14 days – North Carolina has seen a downward trend in the percent of tests returning positive in the past two weeks
4. Trajectory in hospitalizations over 14 days – North Carolina has seen a level trajectory for hospitalizations in the past two weeks
If these numbers continue to hold level or improve in the next 10 days, the state will reassess and consider moving on to phase two of the plan on May 22. Phase two will only begin if data and indicators are in the right place, according to the release from Cooper’s office.
 

By the numbers
Jackson County’s COVID-19 numbers have seen a slight uptick this week, but overall cases in the westernmost counties remain relatively low compared to counties throughout the rest of the state.
As of May 11, Jackson County has confirmed 22 positive tests for full-time residents, two positive tests for part-time residents and 20 positive tests for non-residents. There has been one death in Jackson County due to COVID-related complications, as reported in last week’s issue of the Crossroads Chronicle.
Statewide, the number of confirmed cases has risen to 15,045 positive tests with 550 deaths. The United States’ confirmed positive results rose to 1.3 million this week, with 78,771 deaths as a result of the virus so far.

Local response
Following the governor’s orders put into place on May 8, Jackson County has updated its own guidance for local businesses and residents to fall in line with the statewide mandates. While a state of emergency remains in effect for the county, the supplemental declarations issued by the county board of commissioners restricting travel and requiring 14-day quarantines for those traveling to the county from elsewhere have been lifted, effective May 8 at 5 p.m.
While there are limited reopenings of some lodging and hospitality businesses included in the governor’s orders, the declaration issued by Jackson County makes it clear that this is not a full reopening of the county and continues to discourage unnecessary travel from outside of the area.
“Individuals need to remain vigilant to stop the spread of this virus,” the declaration reads. “Jackson County looks forward to the return of tourists to the area when appropriate, but this is not the time for a vacation.”

Going all in
The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been enormous across the globe, leaving no business untouched by the virus. In order to help local businesses weather the storm, Jackson County has partnered with Mountain BizWorks, a non-profit community development financial institution, to administer the All In Jackson Fund to provide short-term, low-interest loans to businesses in the county that have been severely impacted by COVID-19.
The initial fund will provide $324,000 in loans ranging between $2,500 and $10,000 to local businesses. The fund is also accepting contributions from other organizations, businesses and individuals who are trying to help buoy struggling local businesses.
With the establishment of the fund, Jackson County Economic Development Director Rich Price said businesses will soon be receiving targeted relief.
“This announcement will allow the Jackson County Office of Economic Development to immediately begin investing to shore up our small business economy” Price said in a press release. “By partnering with the Jackson and Cashiers Area Chambers of Commerce, the Jackson County TDA, and the SCC and WCU Small Business Centers, we can quickly and efficiently get this funding into the hands of our business owners, their employees, and their creditors, which will hopefully provide them with a bit of safe passage until we can get the local economy functioning in some new sense of normalcy.”
Jackson County Board of Commissioners Chairman Brian McMahan said he was glad to see some relief going to businesses in the community, many of which have been forced to shut down entirely and are facing dire financial circumstances.
“The Commissioners recognize that these are extraordinary times in which small businesses have been forced to operate within,” McMahan said in the release. “Some businesses have been able to offer limited services in a survival mode, while others have not been as fortunate and have had to temporarily close their doors. The All In Jackson County Fund is the first of the Board’s efforts to provide some local relief to our local economy.”
For more information on the All In Jackson Fund, visit allinjacksonnc.com.