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Forsyth libraries continue pick-up operation despite concerns from staff

Forsyth county library’s continued curbside pick-up service raises concerns amongst staff and community.

At least one staff member with the Forsyth county public library system said that they are concerned for their own health and safety, that of their co-workers and the wider community because of an ongoing book pick-up service at all 10 of the library system’s locations.

While the libraries are closed to visitors, all branches of the library system began offering what they call “to-go library pickups,” in which patrons can request books and pick them up from carts outside of the libraries. Libraries in Greensboro and High Point closed a few weeks ago.

During a virtual briefing conducted by the Forsyth County Commission on March 26, Commissioner Fleming El-Amin, who represents District A, brought up concerns about the ongoing service.

“People are touching books and putting them in the drop-offs,” he said. “I’m asking can we close down that operations, too? I think other commissioners mostly agree with me.”

According to a March 27 memo by Assistant County Manager Shontell Robinson, the decision to continue curbside pick-up service was made after Robinson spoke with Dr. Christopher Ohl, the county’s public health medical director for communicable disease. The memo states that Ohl is also a physician at Wake Forest Baptist Health, and is considered an infectious disease expert.

“I asked Dr. Ohl for his medical opinion regarding the safety of our current operations and whether he advises closing the library,” Robinson writes in the memo. “He states that he is confident that current operations are safe and are probably even ‘over-kill.’ He further remarked that we are probably safer than take-out food operations.”

Sanders-Pratt told Triad City Beat on Monday that strict measures were in place to ensure the safety of both patrons and staff. He said books are being quarantined for 72 hours and that most books, if not all, are being disinfected as well.

“We felt like the libraries still have a usefulness for people who are required to stay at home,” Sanders-Pratt said. “The same way that park facilities are practicing good social distancing, we feel like if we do the same, the library resources can also be available to the public.”

One library staff member, who asked to remain anonymous out of a fear of retaliation, said that they are concerned for their own safety as well as the safety of patrons.

“I’m concerned about the idea that we are legitimately enticing people out of their homes during a stay-at-home order,” they said. “I think it’s great that there’s so much support for this library system but at the same time, I cannot say that it is truly an essential service along the lines of grocery, or vehicle fuel. It’s not essential in that respect.”

Sanders-Pratt said that under the Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-a-home order, “bookstores that sell educational material” are considered essential and may continue to operate. In an email, Sanders-Pratt said that “although public libraries do not ‘sell’ educational material to assist with homeschooling, public libraries are a way for those who cannot afford to buy educational material to acquire it as well.”

Additionally, the county adopted Winston-Salem’s own stay-at-home order on March 27 which includes “educational institutions” as an essential operations. The city’s stay-at-home order also states that “travel to or from educational institutions for purposes of receiving materials for distance learning” is allowed.

The staff member also said that while books that have been dropped off are being quarantined for 72 hours, not all books are being disinfected. Only ones that have been put on hold are being wiped down.

“Each book is not being wiped down,” they said. “That’s a practical impossibility.”

An image from the Forsyth county library’s Facebook page encourages patrons to use the to-go library system.

A January study in the Journal of Hospital Infection reported that coronaviruses similar to COVID-19 can persist on paper for four or five days. More recently, data from the National Institutes of Health found that the virus has the potential to be detected for up to 24 hours on cardboard. The study did not expressly look at the virus’s viability on paper.

Other library systems in the Triad have already shut down operations.

The Greensboro libraries suspended all services with the exception of online and e-book holds on March 17, while libraries in High Point closed the day before.

The Forsyth county library staff member said that they don’t understand why their library system hasn’t followed suit.

“I don’t know why the local government feel that they’re standouts and shouldn’t follow the lead that other municipalities in the area have made,” they said. “Honestly, it makes me feel uncared for, and I’m baffled.”

The American Library Association, a nonprofit and the oldest and largest library association in the world, released a statement on March 17, recommending that library leaders and their governing bodies evaluate closing libraries to the public.

“Keeping libraries open at this time has the potential to harm communities more than help,” the statement reads.

The staff member said that library staff are being encouraged to practice regular hand-washing and use latex gloves to handle materials. But that doesn’t reassure them, the staff member said.

On any given shift, library staff handles hundreds of books, they said. And sometimes, they forget to wear gloves in between handling.

“I have caught myself a couple of times handling without gloves,” they said. “We’re not perfect.”

The staff member said that given the fact that those infected with COVID-19 can be asymptomatic and that there is a stay-at-home order, they don’t understand why the libraries would continue to offer this service.

“Almost everyone shows some level of concern for their own personal safety and the potential to bring it back to someone in their family,” they said. “It’s in everyone’s best interest to radically minimize contact as much as possible.”

The staff member’s concerns are not isolated.

According to a Google Doc that was created by Sacramento public librarian Casey Manno on March 17, hundreds of librarians from across the country share these worries. The spreadsheet shows entries put in by workers that state whether their libraries have closed to the public, what kind of library they are, and what kind of pay the staff is getting.

In North Carolina, workers from Alamance, Cabarrus, Iredell, Moore, Poke, and Wake counties have all commented in the spreadsheet, stating an array of situations from being open for regular hours to offering curbside pick-up like Forsyth’s system.

According to a library staff update by Forsyth’s interim library director Elizabeth Skinner, employees who decide to not come into work must use their sick and vacation time for pay.

“Once they have used all of this leave, they would go on an unpaid status,” the memo reads.

The update also states that “if a staff member tests positive for COVID-19, or is quarantined for any reason, they would become eligible for Family First Coronavirus Response Act benefits,” but would not receive worker’s compensation.

“I have coworkers at this branch who have started using their paid leave time,” the staff member said. “But I need this income, so I keep coming to work. I could be at home, but I do in fact need this income.”

Coronavirus daily update: Sunday, March 29

Daily corona round-up

Tending our gardens

Did everybody get what they need from the hardware store? Get their lawn squared away, mulch the flowerboxes, fix the deck, install new blinds, paint the bathroom and maybe build those closet shelves we’ve been meaning to get to?

It makes sense that we’re nesting, hunkering down, girding ourselves for the long, slow march. We might be here awhile.

Gov. Cooper’s stay-at-home orders begin tomorrow at 5 p.m. And President Trump extended federal social-distancing guidelines until April 30.

Meanwhile, the numbers continue to jump. But, as you’ll see, things in North Carolina are, relatively, not so bad. Let’s begin with the numbers

The numbers

  • We’ve got 1,186 documented cases of COVID-19 in North Carolina, from the N&O count. They also put Guilford County at 39 cases, five ahead of the county website, and Forsyth County at 35, up from the 33 reported at the website. Some words about the N&O’s methodology (and why I trust it) here.
  • So 74 in the Triad, 336 in Mecklenberg County (a third of the state total) and 253 in the Triangle (146 in Wake County and 107 in Durham County, if you must know). That’s more than half the state’s cases right there. We have not been hit as hard as some states, and are in a good position to handle what we ultimately get.
  • I’m referring to this website, which gives state-by-state predictions as to hospital beds, estimated use and even a timeline until “peak usage.”
    • Healthdata.org predicts NC will hit peak resource use on April 22, the same day we will hit our peak count of daily fatalities — we’re expected rto lose 79 people that day.
    • Even in the worst-case scenario, we’ll have nearly enough beds and ventilators to handle it. And if we can affect the spread of the coronavirus by staying home as much as possible, we might be able to ease the strain on our facilities and save some lives.

Local news

A diversion

Elton John is giving a free “living room ” concert tonight, with special guests Billie Eilish, Tim McGraw, Mariah Carey and Alicia Keys — all filming from their homes. It’s on Fox 8 tonight at 9 p.m., but you can also listen live at any iHeart radio station. To whet your appetite, here’s some live footage from 1971, on the British music show “The Old Grey Whistle Test.”

Program notes

  • Tonight’s featured public-domain image is “Pietro de Angelis Carro di Cerere,” a drawing of the chariot of Ceres, goddess of the harvest, pulled by her dragons. Thank your tax money and the National Gallery of Art.
  • Huge thanks to Pandemic Trivia Time out of Greensboro, who marked us for donations during Sunday night’s tournament. They’re rolling a couple times a week — check them out if you like trivia. But be warned: There are some pretty serious players in that crew.
  • If you’d like to help Triad City Beat, please consider joining our mailing list, or making a donation. Thanks all.

2-alarm fire damages warehouse in Greensboro on Saturday night

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A warehouse owned by New Age Builders was partially destroyed in a two-alarm fire in Greensboro on Saturday night.

Greensboro fire Deputy Chief Dwayne Church said neighbors called in reports of multiple explosions at 625-A Fulton St. at about 10:30 p.m. When the first engine arrived on the scene, firefighters encountered heavy fire from the warehouse, which is adjacent to a rail line.

Due to the severity of the fire, Church said a second engine was called to the scene. He said that 68 firefighters fought the fire, and that the estimated cost of the damage was $125,000, including a $25,000 loss to the structure and $100,000 loss in inventory.  

No civilians or firefighters were injured, Church said.

The warehouse is located next door to the Pregnancy Network, formerly known as Greensboro Pregnancy Center, an organization that counsels women against abortion.

“The cause and origin of the fire is still under investigation,” Church said. “Any bigger fire like that, it makes it tougher to determine what caused it. It may take a couple days.”

GALLERY: Back to nature at Salem Lake

The natural world is capable of great beauty, even as it simultaneously unlashes a virus on us all. Jerry Cooper ventured out Salem Lake in Winston-Salem to remind us of this.

Coronavirus daily update: Saturday, March 28

Daily corona round-up

The coronavirus kids

It’s starting to wear on the kids.

We’ve got two high-schoolers — one of which is supposed to graduate this year, and is still waiting to hear from a few top-choice schools. We’ve got another college kid taking classes from his childhood bed. They have been in the house for more than a week.

My friend Jason Pramas at Dig Boston filed a fantastic Q&A which is helpful when talking about the coronavirus with your family.

It’s tough with little kids, because they just don’t understand. Older kids do understand. And what do we tell them, these kids of ours who all got sent to their rooms to watch TV at the same time?

We’re sorry? We’ll make it up to them? It’ll all be over soon?

Anyway, they’re getting really good at video games.

Local news

The Numbers

A diversion

I have not let listened to the new Bob Dylan song — the 17-minute “Murder Most Foul,” about the JFK assassination. And if I’m being honest, I probably will not get around to it this weekend (“Ozark” is back, you know). But I appreciate the effort, and the timing.

Program notes

4 arrested for protesting Greensboro abortion clinic amid stay-at-home order

Police arrested four men today who were protesting outside of an abortion clinic and attempting to speak with family members.

In a Facebook Live video posted by the Charlotte-based anti-abortion group Love Life, a man can be heard saying, “Hey guys, we’re in Greensboro right now. We were in Charlotte earlier this morning. And we got a report that in Greensboro, the police have pushed against people being out here to pray, even though we’re doing social distancing. So, we just came up here because they basically they ran off the prayer walkers. They ran off the sidewalk counselors. And the abortion center remains open.”

Three minutes later, the video shows an encounter with two Greensboro police officers outside of A Woman’s Choice, the abortion clinic, on Randleman Road.

“I’m gonna tell you now: You need to return to your vehicles,” Lt. DW Knott says. “You’ve got a choice now to make. You can choose to comply with what I’m telling you, or you’re going to be charged…. Right now, I am giving you a command to leave this location.”

“We must obey the rule of God, and not of man,” an unidentified protester responds.

After Knott asks him if he’s going to comply, another protester responds that he is going to stay where he is “pursuant” to the Guilford County stay-at-home order.

“Sir, let me have your ID, please,” Knott says, “and I want you to sit on the curb.”

Another protester says, “I don’t mean any disrespect.”

A second officer says, “Well, y’all are disrespecting us by doing this.”

Sitting on the curb, one of the protesters says, “You want to do this. I don’t want to do this. You desire this. You are the one pushing this. I’m saying, ‘Let’s talk about it.’ I’m saying, ‘At least talk to your city council about it, and your lawyer.’ You don’t want to do that.”

One of the men who was arrested is Justin Reeder, the founder of Love Life USA, according a press release issued by the NC Values Coalition, a Christian right organization based in Charlotte. The 34-year-old Reeder, who is a resident of Huntersville, has been charged with violating the stay-at-home order and resisting, delaying and obstructing a public officer.

Also arrested and charged with violating the stay-at-home order were Jason Oesterreich, 42, of Locust; Carl Ubinas, 52, of Mooresville; and Isaiah Burner, 23, of Statesville. Oesterreich and Ubinas were also charged with resisting, delaying and obstructive a public officer.

Ron Glenn, the public information officer for the Greensboro Police Department, said that any person who is outside of their home and is not covered by an exception in the order, such as essential work activity or essential travel, can be found in violation of the order. He added that violating the stay-at-home order is a Class 2 misdemeanor.

Glenn said these are the first arrests made by Greensboro police for violating the stay-at-home order. He could not identify the other two men who were arrested.

The NC Values Coalition condemned the arrests.

“The North Carolina Values condemns the actions of Greensboro police for arresting Christians who peacefully and legally pray and exercise their religious rights on sidewalk,” said Jim Quick, the state director of grassroots and media. “Not even in communist China would police arrest three men for walking and praying on the street. Even during a fight against a virus, Americans have constitutional rights to pray and exercise religious freedoms.”

A months long investigation by TCB from October found that Love Life, along with other local crisis pregnancy centers, repeatedly gather at the local abortion clinic, the only one in Greensboro, to protest. Crisis pregnancy centers are typically faith-based organizations whose sole goal is to dissuade people from getting abortions, often by protesting right next to clinics and using false-advertising tactics.

Protesters with Love Life — a religious organization that works to mobilize churches in Greensboro, Raleigh, Charlotte and New York City — gather at A Woman’s Choice every weekend and often times on weekdays to oppose abortion. While many protesters attempt to hand out pamphlets to patients as they drive into the parking lot, other, more belligerent protesters use microphones to speak or shout directly at patients as they walk through the doors.

Love Life, whose protesters usually wear teal shirts, congregate at the clinic in large numbers throughout the year, especially during their “40 Days for Life” events in which close to 100 people gather to pray and sing next to the clinic.

To ensure that patients are able to access the clinic safely, the clinic has its own volunteers, also known as escorts, who help shield the patients from the protesters and walk them from their cars to the clinic.

“You just have to be extremely vigilant,” said one volunteer during TCB‘s October investigation.

To read TCB’s investigation on what abortion access looks like in Greensboro click here.

Sayaka Matsuoka contributed to this story.

This story originally stated that three men were arrested. It has been updated to reflect the accurate number.

Dozens of Love Life protesters gather on a Saturday morning to pray and sing near the abortion clinic in Greensboro. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

GALLERY: Greensboro stays at home

In the Triad, a stay-at-home order went into effect last night at 5 p.m. Todd Turner ventured out in Greensboro during the Magic Hour to document the scene.

Essential? Major Triad employers claim exemption from stay-at-home orders, putting workers in fear for safety

Photo: Replacements Limited President Scott Fleming told employees in an email yesterday that as an “essential business,” the company is allowed “to keep shipping consumer goods to people buying online.” (photo by Carolyn de Berry)

With local stay-at-home orders taking effect across the Triad at 5 p.m. today, many manufacturers and other large-scale employers are claiming an exemption as “essential” businesses, even though the role of their operations in supporting the nation’s critical infrastructure appears to be tenuous at best, arousing distress from workers worried that their health is at risk.

Collins Aerospace, a subsidiary of United Technologies Corp. that makes seats for commercial airlines at its West Point plant in Winston-Salem, issued a letter on Monday indicating that its employees are performing “essential services” in case they are stopped by authorities, in anticipation of the restrictions. The letter cited guidance from the US Department of Homeland Security, while asserting that the West Point plant “provides essential materials and services” to “airlines, aircraft manufacturers and other critical transportation providers.”

Other Triad employers have sent out similar communiques to workers throughout the week.

The president of Replacements Limited, a company that supplies vintage and current dinnerware, told employees in an email sent on Thursday that the Guilford County order “offered businesses like ours (or Amazon’s or Belk’s) the ability to keep shipping consumer goods to people buying online,” while expressing gratitude that “our business is an essential business.”

Furnitureland South in Jamestown is also claiming exemption from the stay-at-home order. Under a plan effective from March 30 through April 5, CEO Jeffrey D. Harris told employees that the company “will be operating under the bare minimum associates necessary to deliver to, and service the clients that continue requesting to have their purchases delivered.” The company is also retaining a reduced facilities services staff to keep buildings clean and sanitized, and Starbucks and Subway will remain open on the campus.

Honda Aircraft Co., which makes personal luxury jets at Piedmont Triad International Airport near Greensboro, sent out an email on Wednesday informing employees that they were exempt from the Guilford County order while instructing them to “continue to report for work until further notice.” The email declared the company to be an “essential business” under the criteria set by a March 19 Homeland Security memo that defining businesses “deemed essential during this public health crisis” as exempt, including “those critical for manufacture, distribution and supply chain.”

But on Thursday, the company abruptly announced a temporary suspension of production at its Greensboro facility, although for a reason unrelated to the “essential business” designation. A company spokesperson said production will be suspended for 10 business days, until April 14, “due to anticipated decline in market demand related to the economic impact of COVID-19.”

The email to employees from Replacements Limited President Scott Fleming conspicuously emphasizes the company’s financial health over public health considerations, and includes no explanation about how its operation might be useful in combating the spread of the virus.

“We want this business to survive COVID-19,” Fleming wrote. “Many businesses will not. We plan to fight for our future. We’ve made the decision to operate our remaining onsite operations for as long as we safely can and should. Our ability to open and operate onsite is the key to our ability to meet our financial obligations, including providing pay and benefits during this pandemic and for the longer term. We make the money we need to operate by shipping orders.”

Reached by phone at Replacements Limited on Friday, Fleming referred questions about the company’s decision to a spokesperson. Lisa Conklin later left a voicemail message for Triad City Beat, saying, “At this point, we’re really busy with our operations, and we are really not going to get into commenting about what’s going on at this time. We just want to take care of our people first.”

The three-page stay-at-home order signed by Guilford County Commission Chairman Jeff Phillips declares: “All businesses and operations in the county,” with the exception of some that are exempted as “essential businesses,” “are to cease all activities within the county except minimum basic operations.” Among 22 distinct categories — everything from funeral services to home-based care and services — the order carves out an exemption for “post offices and other businesses that provide shipping and delivery services, and businesses that ship or deliver groceries, food, goods or services to end users through commercial channels.”

Fleming said in his email that non-exempt employees approved for on-site work from March 30 through April 12 will receive a bump in pay of an additional $2 per hour, while exempt employees will receive an $80 weekly premium. And beginning today, employees are receiving three additional days of paid time off. Beginning April 1, Fleming said, “employees will qualify for emergency paid sick leave” and emergency leave under the Family Medical Leave Act.

Fleming said that if employees have not been exposed to COVID-19 and are committed to social distancing and good hygiene, “we want you here as long as we have work for you to do.”

Collins Aerospace in Winston-Salem took a similar stance.

Citing guidance from Homeland Security, Konstantinos Katakis, general manager of Collins Aerospace’s West Point facility, told employees in a letter that they are performing “essential services,” in part, because “the site provides essential materials and services under contract or subcontract to airlines, aircraft manufacturers and other critical transportation providers.”

One employee, who spoke to TCB on condition of anonymity because of concern that their comments would jeopardize their employment, challenged the notion that the work performed at the facility supports the nation’s critical infrastructure.

“We’re producing components for brand-new airplanes,” they said. “It’s not helping with anything going on. We’re making parts for new planes that haven’t even been made yet.”

Messages left for Katakis at the plant on Friday went unreturned.

Winston-Salem’s stay-at-home order, which also went into effect at 5 p.m. today, includes a carve-out for work activity in the transportation sector, including “airlines, taxis, public transportation, transportation network providers (such as Uber and Lyft), vehicle rental services, paratransit, and other private, and commercial transportation and logistics providers necessary for essential activities.”

Assistant City Manager Damon Dequenne suggested during a press conference that operations like Collins Aerospace are exempted under the order. He said, “Aerospace is part of transportation.”

State and federal authorities concur that where remote work is not possible, employers should protect their employees by staggering shifts and requiring proper social distancing by workers on-site.

The Collins Aerospace employee told TCB that the measures the company has implemented for worker safety are inadequate. As of Thursday, they said, management began instructing employees to maintain six feet of distance between one other.

“The problem — the way constructing things goes — is everyone is moving around,” they said. “There’s no way to maintain that space. And everyone touches the same piece of the component. If anyone is sick, everyone is going to be touching the same thing.”

Collins Aerospace reportedly sent out letters to staff at its plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on March 18 indicating that two employees were showing symptoms of COVID-19. Earlier this week, the company confirmed that one of the employees at the Iowa plant tested positive for the disease.

In contrast to hourly workers who risk exposure to COVID-19 by working together, the employee said that many of the salaried employees are working alternating weeks to minimize contact with one another. They said there is no temperature check for personnel entering the facility.

During a recent meeting in which workers asked if the company would provide facemasks and gloves, they said a manager scanned the group and said, “I see people with masks. If you want masks, that’s on you.”

Honda Aircraft’s email declaring that the company is an “essential business” also cited the Homeland Security guidance.

An employee in the quality department, speaking on condition of anonymity out of concern that their job would be jeopardized, challenged the notion that the company’s operations play any critical role in addressing the COVID-19 crisis.

“Honda Aircraft manufactures private jets that cost $4.5 million, which make them only accessible to millionaires,” they said. “They are not using aircraft to ferry medical supplies or to ferry medical personnel. They are declaring themselves an essential business so that they don’t risk the impact to their own bottom line.”

A company spokesperson, who also requested anonymity, issued a statement late on Friday arguing that Honda Aircraft’s operations are essential to both the economy and the fight against COVID-19. The company, they said, “is vital to the economy, not only by serving our customers and maintaining commerce, but by supporting our dealers and business partners, including a number of small businesses. So, employees who have been asked to briefly continue working are essential not only to Honda Aircraft, but to the greater good of the economy and well-being of the communities where they work.”

The spokesperson also suggested that the HondaJet Elite aircraft could be called into service to help assist efforts to fight the pandemic.

“Honda is a mobility company and in general plays a critical role for the transportation system,” they said. “Our aircraft are utilized for not only business but also for safety and security of passengers. Also, our aircraft is used to transport critically ill patients who are seeking life-saving treatment. A fleet of our aircraft could be used as air ambulances.”

In the meantime, while production is idle in Greensboro, the spokesperson confirmed that the company “will be providing several opportunities to make sure our employees will be paid.”

The company dismissed a charge made by the employee that it is using the Homeland Security guidance as a “loophole” to maintain corporate profits at the expense of worker safety.

“Honda Aircraft Company’s immediate focus is on the health of our fellow colleagues, our company, our communities, and society,” the spokesperson said. “We are taking immediate measures to ensure the health of all these is met simultaneously.”

The spokesperson said to protect its workforce from COVID-19, the company has instructed employees to maintain six feet of distance from one another, including those working inside the aircraft, along with increased sanitizing.

But the employee said these measures aren’t adequate or effective.

“The technicians are still sharing hand-tools, and six feet of separation is difficult to do in this fuselage,” they said. “Just the way the stations are set up, it’s not likely that someone is going to be able to maintain six feet of distance. There’s not a good way to keep hand-tools sanitized — not in the amount that they’re being used, not in the porosity of the handles.”

The employees in the quality department are also at risk, they said.

“We all sit very close to each other,” they said. “We sit in cubicles that are less than six feet apart, in an environment, where if anyone is coughing or sneezing, it goes around like wildfire.

“The people at most risk are the technicians and the quality inspectors,” they continued. “They’re in close proximity. They’re less likely to have insurance and more likely to be paid less.”

Coronavirus daily update: Friday, March 27

Friday night lockdown

Everybody knows that Gov. Cooper issued Executive Order 121, a stay-at-home order that insists we only leave our homes for “Essential Activites,” government business and COVID-19-related work. For most of you, this means you can leave your house for doctor’s appointments, household errands (no haircuts or tattoos!), church and outdoor activity — walking, running, hiking, golfing and biking are specifically mentioned.

Seriously: Stay home.

Local news

  • The city of Greensboro suspended yard-waste collection until further notice. Bulk pickup — like your refrigerator or that old couch you need to drag to the curb — is by appointment only.
  • Twin City Fashion Week is postponed, to a date TBD. (We will resume our ticket giveaway when a date is announced).
  • Old Salem laid off its hourly employees, announced in a very classy press release. Donate if you can.
  • The North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association launched a Restaurant Workers Relief Fund. Get on it, friends!

The big story

The numbers

  • Guilford County jumped to 32 cases today. Thats up six from yesterday. Forsyth added seven cases today, for a total of 24. That’s a total of 56, if you’re keeping score at home.
  • The global database has North Carolina at 836 cases. The N&O puts it at 832. We’re still adding 100 cases or more a day. We’ve added another death in our state for a total of three: a person in their mid-60s with an underlying medical condition in Johnson County.
  • Charlotte/Mecklenberg County is laden with 204 of those cases, another 24 in neighboring Union County. Durham has 93 and Wake has 105, for a total of 198 in the Triangle, unless you count Orange County, in which case add 16.
  • We’re growing at a rate of 0.84 percent. Compare that with New Jersey, which jumped by 28.34 percent today, up to 8,825 from 6,876.
  • Could be worse!

A diversion

I think you should watch James Booker’s performance at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in 1978. Dr. John called him “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans ever produced.” It’s a bit over an hour, but it’s not like you ain’t got the time.

Program notes

NIK SNACKS: Triad farmers markets endure the pandemic

They’re open for business, one way or another

Grocery shopping used to be therapeutic. Remember meandering up and down each aisle, casually picking up boxes, caressing ergonomic jars and actively crinkling cellophane packages? Grocery shopping was once a stress-reliever. But now, instead of sampling cubes of cheese and bread slices dipped in oil along with sips of wine from paper cups and grabbing slices of fruit stabbed with toothpicks, we’re marveling at the empty shelves and trying not to touch anything.

My, how times have changed.

To tamp down on the community spread of COVID-19, local governments have issued ordinances and suggestions to limit gatherings of people in indoor and outdoor spaces to no more than 10 people. While restaurants are limited to take-out, carryout and delivery options, farmers markets are seeing a boost. An ordinance issued by NC Gov. Roy Cooper on March 20 states that farmers markets are in the same classification as grocery stores and can remain open, according to guidance issued by the state Department of Health and Human Services.

“A big part of my week last week was working with Pricey Harrison, our state rep, about keeping our market open,” says Kathy Newsom, the manager of the Corner Farmers Market in Greensboro.

The market opened Saturday morning, just like always.

“We didn’t know what to be prepared for, but about 150 people came through the pre-order pick up line,” she said. “And while at no time were we crowded, a good clip of people came through to shop the market.”

Normally, more than 40 vendors set up at the market; last week that number was reduced to 16. Market communications via email and social media encourage people to pre-order and utilize the drive-up pick-up option.

“We wanted assured items that may not be available at grocery stores,” said Newsom. “We asked certain vendors to sit this one out and focused on sellers of food, plants, soap and cleaners.”

Farmers Markets that choose to operate during the COVID-19 outbreak are required to follow the same federal or state- mandated directives as grocery stores on issues such as social distancing and crowd size. According to the CDC, the virus is most likely to cause illness through respiratory transmission, not eating. The highest concerns include being in very close proximity to people or coming in contact with highly touched surfaces.

The Robert G. Shaw Piedmont Farmers Market in Colfax, run by the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, is still open daily from 7 a.m.-6 p.m. As of March 17, operations at the Greensboro Curb Farmers Market, which is run by the City of Greensboro are suspended. Market organizers have compiled a resource directory to connect customers directly with vendors while in lieu of a Saturday market.

“We will be announcing new portals and models as the days go by,” said Executive Director Lee Mortensen. “We are moving from a traditional public market to a virtual marketplace. The market will be here for everyone to continue connecting farmer foods and friends when we can open our doors again,” Mortensen adds.

The Cobblestone Farmers Market in Winston-Salem usually operates in Old Salem. Since the living museum is closed to the public, Cobblestone staff have decided to set-up outside in the parking lot at 1001 S. Marshall St. on Saturdays with extended hours of 8:30 a.m.-noon until further notice.

All operational farmers markets are taking several new precautions:

  • Providing high-risk and senior customers aged 65 and over an exclusive shopping time from 8:30-9 a.m.
  • Creating a 20-foot distance between booths, reducing crowd volume by extending market hours and promoting pre-ordering, drive-up, pick-up and home delivery.
  • Increasing awareness and opportunity for social distancing between customers in lines, and discouraging prolonged conversations/interactions at a distance
  • Vendors will use gloves when handling money and, packaged items; two people will manage each booth — one money handler and one product handler. 
  • Regularly sanitizing high- touch areas within the market area and using non-porous tablecloths

“We are going above and beyond grocery stores,” says Salem Neff, Cobblestone Farmers Market co-founder.

Farmers markets are an important link in the local food chain. Food access for vulnerable populations may be a problem, but both farmers markets have a solution.

“We are actively trying to increase economic growth through agriculture. It’s on our website. It’s in our mission statement,” says Margaret Norfleet-Neff, Cobblestone Farmers Market Co-Founder and CEO.

The Cobblestone Food Access Program and the Greens For Greens program at the Corner Farmers Market make SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) dollars go farther by matching every $10 spent at the market with an additional $10 in market tokens to spend at the market. For example, if a SNAP customer chooses to spend $50 using their EBT (electronic benefits transfer) card, the market matches that amount and provides an additional $50. Both markets use a token system for SNAP customers. Tokens are exchanged in lieu of cash to spend at each vendor. The programs are funded through private donations, grants and sales of market merchandise such as tote bags, travel mugs and T-shirts.

“The word isn’t out there about these programs at farmers markets,” says Lauren Shemelya, a SNAP recipient. She and three of her children qualify for $186 a month in benefits. “People are lazy and don’t want to cook. Good, fresh fruit and vegetables are out there. I didn’t even know about the matching program.”

Local and state officials create contingency plans for November election, expect more mail-in ballots

State and local board of election officials work on contingency plans for the November election in light of COVID-19.

Directors for both the Forsyth and Guilford county boards of elections say that they are working on contingency plans for the November general election given concerns brought on by COVID-19.

As several states push back their primary dates across the country, local election boards are also weighing their options for November if the coronavirus persists past the summer.

“There’s a side that says maybe we’re okay by then, and that’s great, but even under that circumstance, I’m greatly increasing the budget for the mail-in process,” said Charlie Collicutt, the elections director for Guilford County. “I think voters are going to want to take advantage of that more than ever.”

Tim Tsujii, Collicutt’s counterpart in Forsyth County, has been thinking along the same lines.

“I know there are rumblings of an all-by-mail for November,” Tsujii said. “If that were to happen, that would require legislative action to permit that… We’ve never really encountered this situation before.”

North Carolina allows registered voters to request and receive a mail-in absentee ballot, with no special circumstance or reasoning needed. According to Pat Gannon, the state board of elections’ public information officer, only about 4 percent of voters choose this option during elections. Numbers from the state’s 2016 election voter turnout show that 4.2 percent of voters opted for mail-in ballots for the presidential race. Because of this, Gannon said that moving to an all-mail-in system for the 2020 general election is highly unlikely.

“We’ve learned from other states that have gone to all-mail-in balloting, that it’s a process that takes years to implement,” Gannon said in a phone call on Friday. “To try to do that in a span of a few months in North Carolina would be irresponsible.”

Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the state Board of Election, said moving to an all-mail-in system would be nearly impossible for North Carolina.

“Voting for the November election actually begins in September and the bulk of preparations and training take place in July and August,” Bell said in a written statement provided to Triad City Beat. “This means we only have a little more than three months to make legislative changes and modify our processes and materials. For these reasons, we are focusing on improving and strengthening both no-excuse absentee by mail voting and in-person voting.”

In a March 26 letter to Gov. Roy Cooper and other state legislators, Bell listed a number of recommendations her office has put together as a response to COVID-19. The first item on the list includes rescheduling the Republican second primary for the 11th Congressional District from May 12 to June 23. Other items include establishing an online portal to request absentee ballots, establishing a fund to pay for postage so voters can easily return their absentee ballots, making Election Day a state holiday, and increasing pay for pollworkers.

According to an article on Wednesday by The Hill, as part of the upcoming coronavirus funding package, “$400 million would be made available to states to ‘help prepare for the 2020 election cycle, including to increase the ability to vote by mail, expand early voting and online registration, and increase the safety of voting in-person by providing additional voting facilities and more poll workers.'”

One concern with the anticipated increase in mail-in ballots is the potential for increased voter fraud.

The November 2018 election in the state’s 9th Congressional District between Republican Mark Harris and Democrat Dan McCready revealed the extent to which absentee ballots could be used to sway an election. An investigation by the state Board of Elections found that an operative hired by Harris’s campaign paid workers to illegally collect absentee ballots from voters as well as fill in blank ballot votes to favor Republican candidates. In February 2019, the board unanimously ordered a new election in the race, which took place in September 2019 and claimed Dan Bishop, a Republican, as the winner against McCready after Harris decided not to compete in the new election.

President Trump campaigns with Republican congressional candidates Ted Budd (right) and Mark Harris in Charlotte on Oct. 26. (screenshot)

On Friday, Gannon ensured voters that “many processes” were in place to prevent the kind of voter fraud that occurred in November 2018 if mail-in ballots were to increase.

“We have a special investigations unit here,” Gannon said. “They monitor the process from start to finish in the absentee system that should detect fraud if it’s occurring. There are many people who are watching our data routinely who are keeping an eye on the process.”

While moving to an all-mail-in election appears to be off the table for now, both local and state officials are making preparations to give voters more flexibility to ensure their right to vote come November.

“We will not let North Carolina down,” Bell said during a State Board of Elections Meeting on March 20. “We will ensure that all North Carolinians are able to exercise their right to vote without fear of exposure to disease when they cast their ballot.”

For up-to-date information on voting and the COVID-19 pandemic, visit the state board of elections website at ncsbe.gov.

Coronavirus daily update: Thursday, March 26

Locals only

Talk about hyperlocal!

We’re all more or less housebound, starting at 5 p.m. tomorrow after orders from our mayors, county commissioners and governor (see last night’s update for details and links). So, like it or not, we’re all gonna hang around the house for the next few days, the next few weeks, whatever it takes.

Hopefully we’ve all gotten better at home-schooling, videoconferencing, washing our hands and filling the long hours we used to spend working. A lot of businesses will be shutting down on Friday, which means a lot more of our friends will be out of work. And more people are getting sick each day.

Today’s developments were more or less predictable, with a couple big headlines that jump out, most of which has to do with math, so let’s start with the numbers.

The numbers

  • We’re No. 1 — in COVID-19, that is. The United States today became the nation with the most confirmed cases of the disease caused by the coronavirus, with a jump of more than 15,000 confirmed cases, putting us ahead of China. But…
    • China’s is 60 days in, and started aggressively flattening the curve 40 days ago, according to this nifty NY Times chart, around the 20-day mark. They have had a few days lately without any new cases.
    • We’re on a steeper incline than China was as we approach the 20-day mark, but we have fewer cases than they did. FWIW.
    • China accomplished this by locking shit down. Can we accomplish the same thing in the US?
  • The US also surpassed 1,000 deaths today — we’re at 1,217 as of 7:52 p.m. — yet we haven’t lost nearly as many as Italy (8,215), Spain (4,365) and China (3,287).
  • One of them was a North Carolinian. The DHHS reported a second death today, a patient in their late 30s, with an unnamed underlying condition from Harnett County.
  • We have 728 diagnosed cases of COVID-19 in North Carolina, according to the N&O. We’ve been getting about 100 a day since Sunday. DHHS says we’ve performed 12,910 tests.
  • In the Triad, Forsyth County remained at 17 diagnosed cases. Guilford picked up four more for a total of 26. We’ve got 45 of 728 cases — just 6.1 percent of the state’s burden. And with just two deaths, our death rate is clocking at 0.2 percent, which compared to New York’s 1.0 percent and California’s 2.0 percent is pretty good — except for all the dead people and those they leave behind.

National news

  • President Trump approved North Carolina’s status as a federal disaster area, within 24 hours of Gov. Cooper’s request. It’s a money thing.
  • We’re getting $2 trillion — that’s what the Senate and the NY Times tell us, anyway. We’ll be keeping an eye on this process.

Local news

  • Honda Aircraft suspended production today at its Greensboro plant. “This is due to anticipated decline in market demand related to the economic impact of COVID-19,” the spokesperson told Triad City Beat. They plan to resume in April.
  • The Wherehouse Art Hotel — a true gem of the Camel City — needs some cash. Hit up their GoFundMe if you can. There’s nothing else like it.
  • The State Archives is looking for volunteers to transcribe old documents, diaries, letters and other materials — from home, of course. If I wasn’t otherwise occupied, I would totally do this.
  • Gears and Guitars Fest has been moved from May 22-24 to Oct. 2-4. It’s still in Bailey Park (no link because site is not updated).

A diversion

Dig the trailer for My Comic Shop Country, a feature-length doc about the comic-shop biz featuring local legend Jermaine Exum, of Acme Comic Shop. I’d embed it, but it’s a Facebook video and I don’t feel like messing with it.

Program notes

Honda Aircraft suspends production in Greensboro

Honda Aircraft Co. is suspending production of its HondaJet Elite luxury jet at its headquarters at Piedmont Triad International Airport near Greensboro, a company spokesperson confirmed on Thursday.

The company plans to resume production on April 14.

“This is due to anticipated decline in market demand related to the economic impact of COVID-19,” the spokesperson told Triad City Beat.

This story is developing….