Mecklenburg County relaxes stay-at-home order, reopens park gates

MATTHEWS, N.C. — Mecklenburg County has rescinded its stay-at-home order and will now align with Gov. Roy Cooper’s order.

The county’s stay-at-home proclamation moved under North Carolina’s order Thursday morning, and that plan’s three-phased approach to reopen the state.

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“The way to keep COVID-19 from spreading remains the same,” said Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris. “We must continue to stay socially distanced, where masks when you can’t, and only go out when it’s necessary to work, get food or exercise.”

The change means some restrictions are being loosened and a handful of businesses that have been closed for weeks will now be allowed to reopen.

Diorio said the decision was a consensus between the city, county and its six towns.

The North Carolina Order allows some businesses that were closed under Mecklenburg County’s order to be open under state rules, which are scheduled to remain in place until May 8.

The following is considered essential businesses/activities under the state’s order:

  • Defense and military contractors that develop products, processes, equipment, technology, and related services that serve the United States military, national defense and national security interests
  • Electronic retailers that sell or service cell phones, computers, tablets and other communications technology
  • Lawn and garden equipment retailers
  • Book stores that sell educational material
  • Religious facilities, entities, groups, gatherings, including funerals (no more than fifty people)
  • Services, counseling, pastoral care and other activities provided by religious organizations to the members of their faith community
  • Insurance companies, underwriters, agents, brokers and related insurance claims and agency services
  • Real estate services including brokerage, appraisal and title services.
  • Automobile dealers
  • Furniture stores

All essential businesses must observe the following social distancing requirements:

  • Maintaining at least 6 feet distance from other individuals
  • Washing hands using soap and water for at least 20 seconds as frequently as possible or the use of hand sanitizer
  • Regularly cleaning high-touch surfaces
  • Facilitating online or remote access by customers if possible

County parks can also reopen. Visitors had been required to walk to them but now can drive to them again.

The open gates are something people Channel 9 talked to Thursday morning said surprise them. They didn't realize it was happening until they were driving by and saw the open gates with their own eyes.

“I think it’s a sense of freedom for everyone involved,” said Kristopher Thomas, who walks in Freedom Park every morning with his boys.

Those who visited parks Thursday were spread far apart and told Channel 9 they feel safe with the social distancing efforts they’re seeing from others.

“Everyone’s kind of unspoken, you go on the path first, and then I’ll go once you’re past,” said Cassidy Storm. “There’s definitely a different feel right now but I think that’s probably a good thing that everybody has distance.”

If you want to get out to a park, remember that things like playgrounds, bathrooms and sports courts will remain closed. You can play tennis though, as long as you stay 6 feet apart.

County officials are still asking people to wear masks if possible.

Retailers like sporting goods stores can do curbside pickup. Gatherings may not exceed 10 people.

“We think the data we have, in terms of cases and hospital capacity, it is time for us to loosen restrictions and align with the governor’s order,” Diorio said.

She also said Joe Gibbs Racing, the only racing team based in Mecklenburg County, is allowed back into their shop to get ready for the Coca-Cola 600.

The county will be opening parking lots to the greenways and parks. The state's stay-at-home order also allows more gatherings outside, including protests, and police are having to adapt to the new rules on enforcement as well.

Daniel Parks and a handful of supporters of his Cities for Life Ministry were scattered out in front of a women's clinic in southeast Charlotte Wednesday afternoon, being careful to demonstrate they know the rules.

“We got marks on the pavement there, you can see six-foot social distancing marks, and we try to keep that in our mind,” Parks said.

The group was outside the same women’s clinic where earlier this month, police had arrested eight protesters and cited 11 more for violating the county’s stay-at-home order. Arrests that police now say probably wouldn’t happen under the state's stay-at-home guidelines.

“It won’t change anything for us -- we’ll still be here, by God’s grace,” said Parks.

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County parks and greenway update:

Effective April 30, parking lots for parks, greenways and nature preserves will reopen for vehicles, instead of simply walk-in and bicycle access.

In addition, boat ramps at Ramsey Creek, Blythe Landing and Copperhead Island will reopen.

Tennis will also be allowed in county parks that follow safety rules and restrictions provided by the United States Tennis Association. Tennis players and all park patrons should observe the CDC’s recommended social distancing guideline of at least six feet between individuals, and when that is not possible, wear a face mask.

Golf is still allowed with restrictions of only one person per golf cart and social distancing. County driving ranges are still closed.

Park playgrounds, sports courts, restrooms, and fields for group sports will remain closed.

High contact sports like basketball, soccer and volleyball as well as softball/baseball are not permitted.

Indoor facilities like recreation, nature, and aquatic centers will also remain closed to the public until further notice.

Visitors cannot congregate in groups larger than 10.

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High Life Smoke Shop in Charlotte will reopen its locations Thursday as long as social distancing is practiced.

“The owner is definitely eager to see if she and her employees can economically recover from the impact of this,” said Carl Burchette, who is an attorney for the smoke shop.

Burchette told reporter Joe Bruno the business went through the appeals process with the state and was told they could operate under reasonable restrictions.

“The business is still picking up the pieces, and we’ll see what happens Thursday morning. It won’t be business as usual, but it will be business,” Burchette said.

The changes will have a huge impact on home sales.

Kristena Johnson, owner of Johnson Group Partners, said realtors will be allowed to show owner-occupied homes. Before, they were limited to vacant houses.

“We are elated to get back on the market, to work with our sellers, to work and support our buyers,” Johnson said.

She said her team will be taking precautions by asking sellers to open doors and cabinets that would otherwise be touched, and they will be asking buyers to keep their hands in their pockets.

Carmen Johnson isn't allowed to open her Ballantyne salon just yet, but she's starting to think about what it will look like in a COVID-19 world.

“We're going to have to wear face masks, and our clients are going to have to wear face masks, as well,” said Johnson, with Salon Lofts. “We're going to have to use gloves a lot more than we typically do.”

She hopes the county easing restrictions is a sign of things to come and in a few weeks, so her salon may be able to reopen.

“I am really hopeful,” Johnson said. “I am definitely praying, and I am talking to a lot of the girls in my industry, and we are really just eager to get back to work.”

The county’s restrictions, which started March 26, were stricter than the state’s. Now, Mecklenburg County residents will be able to do everything their neighbors in Union, Cabarrus and Rowan counties are able to do.

1,528 residents have tested positive for COVID-19 and 45 have died. About half have been released from isolation, according to Public Health Director for Mecklenburg County Gibbie Harris.

Visits to the emergency room for auto accidents and suicide attempts are down, according to Harris. Visits related to strokes are down. Visits to the emergency room for violence are stable.

There has been a spike to poison control for calls about disinfectants since the stay-at-home order was put into place, Harris said. Which she said could be from kids getting into things they shouldn’t get into.

Eleven long-term care facilities now have outbreaks. Asbury Health and Rehab Center have two cases. FEMA is providing seven days worth of personal protective equipment to these types of facilities.

Harris said the county’s testing is improving with an average of 600 to 700 tests a day at Atrium and Novant. Tests are still focused on high-risk populations and first responders. This may be expanded in a couple of weeks.

Access to testing supplies is the challenge right now, according to Harris. As more workers come back into the workforce, the county will need more testing available.

Diorio said at this time, the hospitals still do not need a field hospital. The hospitals are not even into their surge capacity yet with cases.

Some commissioners are against the decision arguing the towns are forcing the county’s hand to reopen.

The new county order is here, and a complete list of what’s now allowed in Mecklenburg County according to the state order is listed below:

  • Businesses operating in CISA identified sectors. Businesses, not-for-profit organizations or educational institutions operating in the federal critical infrastructure sectors as outlined at https://www.cisa.gov/identifying-critical-infrastructure-during-covid-19.
  • Religious entities. Religious facilities, entities, groups, gatherings, including funerals. Also, services, counseling, pastoral care, and other activities provided by religious organizations to the members of their faith community. All of these functions (with the exception of funerals) are subject to the mass gathering restriction of no more than 10 people.
  • A funeral home can continue to conduct business to assist clients with funeral arrangements. Funerals are time-sensitive events and may not have more than 50 people and participants should practice social distancing.
  • Auto sales/automobile dealers/shipping of vehicles to end-users or through commercial channels.
  • Insurance companies, underwriters, agents, brokers, and related insurance claims and agency services.
  • Professional services including professional and architectural services, land surveying services, real estate services (including brokerage, appraisal and title services) and tax preparation services.
  • Landscaping

Additional COVID-19 Essential Retail Businesses are:

  • Electronic retailers that sell or service cell phones, computers, tablets, and other communications technology;
  • Lawn and garden equipment retailers;
  • Book stores that sell educational material;
  • Retail functions of gas stations and convenience stores;
  • Retail located within healthcare facilities.

For more information about what is allowed see the North Carolina order FAQ.

Meck leaders meet after Matthews votes to follow state’s order, not county’s

The town of Matthews is considering letting some businesses reopen, while some commissioners are concerned it might be too soon.

The town of Matthews voted 4-3 Monday to follow the state’s stay-at-home order instead of Mecklenburg County’s after Wednesday. The state’s order is less restrictive, which would allow some small retailers to seek permission from the state to reopen.

Mecklenburg County and town managers met Tuesday to look at which restrictions, if any they can roll back.

Mayor John Higdon told Channel 9 that Matthews vote is contingent on what Mecklenburg County leaders decide during their meeting.

Higdon is worried small businesses may not survive being closed much longer.

He said he is getting about 10 emails a day from business owners who can’t afford to stay closed much longer.

“This absolutely is not aligned with the group of folks that are saying, 'Let’s open North Carolina, 100% and have no rules, whatsoever,” Higdon said. “We just want to do in Mecklenburg County what all the other counties in North Carolina are doing.”

[ReOpen NC leader says she tested positive for COVID-19]

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Mayor Higdon said this would not apply to restaurants, bars or coffee houses where crowds could be very densely packed, but instead small retailers like bookstores or frame shops.

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Commissioner Larry Whitley and Mayor Pro Tem Renee Garner are among those with concerns.

“My church is in the African American community and people of color are affected by this more than anybody else,” Whitley said. “Give us an opportunity to see what South Carolina and see what Georgia look like and see if they made the right or wrong decision.”

Garner would like to see more data to back their decision.

"I feel like I don’t personally have enough science and data to really understand what we're talking about when these restrictions are eased," she said.

Higdon said there may not be time to wait.

“I’m concerned that if we continue with a very restrictive lockdown, that they may not open at all,” Higdon said.

"On a personal side, we want to open up,” said Allen Johnston, with Achieve Martial Arts. “It's obviously impacted our families and people's income."

Johnston and his business partner opened the martial arts business.

“I think the dilemma is, at some point, you got to open back up,” Johnson said. “But how do you do it safely and how do you do it respectfully for our families?”