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State mandate that restaurants, bars must close is hard for some to stomach

GREENSBORO — Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order that North Carolina restaurants and bars must close for two weeks — a drastic measure taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus — predictably sent business owners and customers into a tailspin on Tuesday.

One bright spot: Establishments can continue to offer takeout and delivery, which might be just enough to keep them afloat.

But for many others, the state mandate could be a death knell if it’s extended to keep pace with the COVID-19 outbreak.

Cooper’s order was seen by most as inevitable, although many held out hope that it wouldn’t be necessary. Until Tuesday, restaurants and bars were exempt from Cooper’s prohibition of assemblies of more than 100 people.

However, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to escalate, state health officials decided to adopt more extreme measures to limit the scope of a respiratory disease that has already infected 40 people in North Carolina, including the first reported case in Guilford County on Tuesday.

For now, many Greensboro establishments are just hoping to save their business.

“My stomach is in knots,” said Lina Fleihan Urmos, the vice president of catering and marketing for Ghassan’s, a chain of Mediterranean-themed restaurants her family has operated for over 40 years.

Urmos said she understands the necessity of shutting down.

“That, of course, does not erase the fact that our business and all other small businesses are being gravely affected,” she said.

Kim Brewer, who co-owns Melt Kitchen and Bar on New Garden Road, found herself grappling with Cooper’s order.

“We have mixed feelings,” Brewer said. “We want everybody to be safe and healthy, but this is unprecedented and we don’t really know what to do minute to minute.”

On Tuesday, customers headed to restaurants and bars as the clock ticked toward 5 p.m. — when Cooper’s order took effect — to get what might be their last meal or drink out for a while.

“It’s important to try to control this outbreak,” said Mary Page, who was having lunch with her husband at the Pavilion Restaurant on West Vandalia Road. “But we know these people in the restaurants are hurting, too.”

Phillip Nixon operates the family-owned restaurant known for Greek and Italian dishes. Like other restaurateurs, he said the state mandate will have a big impact on his staff.

“It’s very short notice, but it’s something they have to do to get through this,” Nixon said.

Nixon said he has about 28 employees per shift and he hopes to keep about 10 of them busy with takeout orders, which were brisk Tuesday as customers came in for spaghetti and lasagna.

“We have a lot of regulars,” he said.

Stephanie Cooke, a teacher, is one of them. She comes to the restaurant two or three times a month.

And she’ll be back — but for takeout.

“I’m just trying to support them because it’s a small business,” Cooke said.

“It’s comfort food with an Undercurrent edge,” he explained.

The restaurant is also offering delivery. Wheeler said the 20% service charge will go right into the pockets of restaurant employees.

“We’re going to preserve and fight,” Wheeler said, “as long as we can.”

Last call for NC bars: 'I had to do something today, even if it’s the end of the world,' Greensboro woman says

GREENSBORO Vike Butler was doing her best to put on a happy face, to smile beneath the fake green mustache she held over her stiff upper lip.

The witching hour of 5 p.m., wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, was a scant 40 minutes away on this oddest of St. Patrick’s Days.

Butler — whose first name is pronounced Vicki — stood on the Market Street sidewalk outside Stumble Stilskins taking a slow, satisfying drag on her cigarette.

Decked out in a green top hat, green sunglasses, green T-shirt and green tulle tutu, Butler soaked in as much of her favorite holiday as she could before all the bars and restaurants in North Carolina closed to dine-in — or drink-in — service, a public health halt ordered by Gov. Roy Cooper.

One last last-call, in broad daylight.

Butler was doing her best to put on a happy face, to smile beneath the fake green mustache she held over her stiff upper lip.

“I was supposed to go on a trip to Ireland this week, a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Butler said. “My flight was leaving at 9 a.m. Saturday, and I was going for St. Patrick’s Day and my birthday on the 21st. I won’t say how old, but it’s a milestone. It was going to be epic. I’ve never been there before. I’ve been waiting my whole life to go. And now I’m not going, and I’m so sad about it.”

Inside at the bar, patrons savored their final pints as the sound system pumped out traditional Irish music.

The High Kings were belting out the sad ballad “Red Is The Rose” while people in small groups of three and four talked among themselves.

It’s not for the parting that my sister pains/

It’s not for the grief of my mother/

‘Tis all for the loss of my bonny Irish lass/

That my heart is breaking forever.

Chris Flathers opened the watering hole known to regulars simply as “Stumbles” back in 2004. He, and the rest of downtown Greensboro, have never seen anything quite like the last two weeks.

“Yeah, St. Patrick’s is a big day,” Flathers said. “But this was supposed to be a big month for the whole city. The ACC tournaments. The NCAA Tournament. The NCAA swimming and diving. The Tanger Center opening. There was a lot of excitement downtown, and it was long overdue. …

“I’ve been here since 2000. I’ve seen all the ups and downs. I’ve seen it when downtown was a ghost-town, and I’ve seen the fun times when it came back, when dead streets came to life. This was a different feeling downtown. A good feeling … If this had to happen, I wish it could’ve happened 20 years ago.”

Instead, it happened in a March this city has looked forward to for the last five years, when the stars aligned and Greensboro prepared for a Tournament Town trifecta of basketball tournaments among a long string of lucrative events for local hospitality businesses.

“If it’s two or three weeks, we’ll all rebound,” Flathers said. “My pain, and my fellow bar owners’ pain, is for our employees. They’re part time or their earnings are gratuity based. (Hospitality) is a top-three employment industry in Greensboro. It’s not just bartenders and servers. You’re talking hotels. You’re talking hairdressers. The list goes on and on. … There’s a lot of folks who are going to hurt bad.”

If the COVID-19 pandemic deepens and social distancing continues, some small operators could go under.

But on this last hurrah under the afternoon sun, Flathers wasn’t in the mood to cry over spilt beer.

“We get it. Trust me, we absolutely get it,” he said. “All the bars thought we would make it until tomorrow, but we all know it’s the right decision. We all know it’s for the greater good. So, yeah, it’s a morbid feeling counting down the hours until 5 o’clock. But it’s absolutely the right thing to do.”

For his customers, it was one last celebration before hibernation.

“I had to do something today, even if it’s the end of the world,” Butler said as she finished her cigarette. “It’s St. Patrick’s Day, my favorite holiday, and you’ve got to celebrate. Even with everything going crazy, you just can’t sit around and be sad. All I’ve got left is about an hour, and I’ll take it. I’ll take every little bit of Ireland I can get today.”

An interesting article in today's newspaper

Guilford sees first case; city says closures effort to stop spread of virus

GREENSBORO — Hours after officials announced Guilford County’s first confirmed case of coronavirus, City Manager David Parrish said moves to close all of the city’s recreation centers and libraries are just one part of an all-out effort to stop the spread of the virus.

“It’s time to react,” he said Tuesday afternoon at a news conference. “We don’t think it’s an overreaction at this point.”

The Greensboro City Council held an emergency meeting before the news conference to get an update from Parrish about all the things the city is doing, from handing out sanitation supplies to all employees to suspending building code enforcement work.

The meeting came in the wake of an announcement from the Guilford County Department of Public Health that the county had its first case of COVID-19.

Paul Minehart, who oversees Syngenta Crop Protection’s corporate communications, confirmed an employee at the company’s Greensboro business center tested positive and said the company has 650 employees at that site.

The employee traveled to Orlando before showing symptoms of the virus, according to county officials.

The infected patient is doing well, health officials said.

“Since we have this first confirmed case, we anticipate additional positive testing,” Iulia Vann, Guilford County’s interim public health director, said Tuesday morning.

By midafternoon, Parrish was speaking to an unusual gathering of the City Council.

The nine members arranged themselves around the large council chambers to demonstrate social distancing, some sitting in their normal seats on the dais, others standing in a semicircle down on the floor as Parrish spoke.

“This is going to be tough,” he told them. “This is going to be a difficult time for small business owners, for families, for our employees, for a lot of the other employees.”

Parrish outlined what the city is doing to protect its employees and the public:

  • Meetings of all commissions and boards are canceled for the next 30 days.
  • The scheduled March 31 City Council meeting will be evaluated closer to that date, he said.
  • Beginning today, all city library branches and indoor Parks and Recreation facilities, plus the Greensboro History Museum, Greensboro Cultural Center and Greensboro Aquatic Center, will be closed because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
  • The Greensboro Farmers Curb Market has also been suspended.
  • City lakes, regional parks and golf courses remain open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day, and city greenways, trails and neighborhood parks are open from sunrise to sunset.

Assistant City Manager Trey Davis said the police department will respond to calls normally but will look for ways to protect officers and the public from coronavirus transmission.

As part of that, he said, Chief Brian James has ordered lobbies at the Swing Road and Maple Street police substations be closed to the public. Officers will continue to work normally from those locations.

Parrish also said the city is doing far fewer building inspections and earlier announced it was opening City Hall only from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., weekdays.

“We ask that you don’t come to City Hall,” he said.

Essential services, like the city’s water system and wastewater-treatment plants, will remain fully staffed and operational, he said.

Council members expressed concern about local businesses and Councilwoman Tammi Thurm said she’d like to see the city form a task force including Downtown Greensboro Inc., the Greensboro Business League and Triad Local First to find ways to assist small businesses that might struggle during the pandemic.

“I’d like to hear from those people what specifically we can do to support them,” she said.

Councilman Justin Outling said he agrees with Thurm.

“I imagine with consumer spending driving so much of our economy, unlike with other financial disasters, this one is going to be large in scale and wide in scope,” he said. “Certainly the city will have some part to play in supporting our community financially during these unprecedented times.”

Outling suggested that Parrish appoint one person on the city staff to look for ways the city can assist businesses and business organizations.

Parrish said that local economic development groups have already opened discussions with city leaders.

Parrish said later at a news conference that the city is working to help its 3,000 employees, including giving each an extra five days of sick time should they need to take time off while sick or to take care of family members.

“Our goal is to take care of our employees the best we possibly can,” he said.

Parrish said that the fire department, first responders and police will be available as always, but he had a special request for the public regarding emergency calls.

“If you have an emergency, please call 911,” he said. “If you have a question about coronavirus or a question about a restaurant, please do not call 911.” The Guilford County health department or a doctor can answer questions about the virus, he said.

Police will be responding, however, to reports that restaurants are operating in violation of Gov. Roy Cooper’s order to stop serving sit-down patrons, he said.

Guilford County officials, meanwhile, put out a call for people to be vigilant after the county’s first coronavirus case was confirmed.

Anyone who has had close contact with the patient and may be at risk of infection will be monitored by the county department of health, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to make sure they are practicing self-isolation and other recommendations from the CDC.

The state on Tuesday said there are now 40 cases of COVID-19, including two previously announced in neighboring Forsyth County. However, Guilford’s case was not yet listed in the state count, which is updated once a day.

The (Raleigh) News & Observer was reporting Tuesday night a total of 65 cases, citing DHHS data as well as information from individual county health departments, U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and Duke University.

'This is rough': Advocates for the homeless struggle to keep them safe during the new coronavirus pandemic

GREENSBORO — Michelle Kennedy is a veteran of crisis.

“This is rough,” said the executive director of the Interactive Resource Center, a day center for the homeless or nearly homeless, of trying to help more of the most vulnerable as the new coronavirus spreads.

“We are doing everything we know to do.”

Kennedy admits she’s making decisions that she’ll have to worry about later as the pandemic leaves deaths, closed schools and businesses in its wake.

On Monday morning she signed a check to place elderly people from the homeless community into hotels, two people to a room — taking $2,500 from an already shoe-string budget to pay for just a week. The nonprofit also has a plan with Cone Health Foundation to find rooms for people who might have serious health problems or are just out of the hospital.

“They are so at-risk there’s no other option,” Kennedy said. “For us, this is not a long-term financially sustainable plan, but the reality is it’s the best decision for the common good. It’s kind of what we have to do.

“As a community we are only as healthy as our most vulnerable,” Kennedy said.

Across the Triad, agencies are trying to make sure the homeless are not forgotten or overlooked.

Greensboro Urban Ministry, another safety net for the homeless and needy, continues to operate its shelter but is packing up bag lunches to go for those who are hungry.

So many of GUM’s most loyal volunteers are elderly that the leadership there is asking for others to help out as they limit their exposure to crowds.

“Please keep us in your prayers while we continue to carry out our important mission while doing our best to protect everyone from this virus,” wrote Myron Wilkins, the agency’s executive director, on the nonprofit’s website.

The Homeless Union, an advocacy group for the poor and homeless, issued a statement Monday calling on public officials to take specific steps that take into account their plights.

The group’s demands include a moratorium on evictions, foreclosures and dispersal of homeless encampments by police, safe and affordable housing immediately, and health care for those with none.

“They have to realize that this doesn’t get better if we just leave people on the streets to die,” said Marcus Hyde, one of the Homeless Union organizers. “A lot of good can be done in a crisis like this when we recognize your health affects my health.”

Some of these concerns were being discussed earlier Monday on a federal level, such as delaying foreclosures and evictions for 30 days.

It also presents an amazing opportunity, Hyde said.

“These have been the demands of the Homeless Union before the crisis,” Hyde said. “This is just common sense public health.”

Area organizations like the IRC and the YWCA that are working with the homeless just can’t shut their doors because of these concerns. Both the IRC and the YWCA say they need cash to offset additional costs.

“There is no ‘other’ in this,” said Lindy Garnette, executive director of the YWCA, whose family shelter is full. “It’s all of us.”

The YWCA shelter, which provides housing and a warm meal onsite to the families and more than a dozen women in a winter emergency shelter through Greensboro Urban Ministry, used to close during the day for cleaning. Families left in the morning and returned later in the day.

Starting today, the shelter will be under its “shelter-in-place” protocol, meaning no residents will be permitted to leave the premises except for those who are required to work and to access medical care, the agency said in a news release.

“Some of them are more scared than others,” Garnette said of shelter residents. “Unlike the rest of us, they are very dependent on other people, so that’s added stress and worry. We’re trying to assure them we are going to see this thing through, and this too shall pass.”

The YWCA is looking for cash donations but also items to help the family shelter operate, such as detergent, food and even games for the children. There’s a specific request for thermometers so that each family has one of its own.

People can leave the items at the shelter’s entrance. “If you don’t want to have human contact, you can ring the bell and leave it there,” Garnette said.

The IRC is also asking for cash donations to help, for example, with the hotel rooms.

“The only other thing we need, literally, is hand sanitizer, because we are giving that to people while they are out in the street,” Kennedy said.

They are not accepting volunteers or donations of any kind at the door for the safety of everyone, and have a limited staff. They are asking for cash donations through their website.

When Kennedy arrived at the IRC early Monday morning, 86 people were already in line — with a number of new faces.

The IRC is usually only open during the day and provides services such as laundry and showers and is continuing to do so.

“It’s because they don’t know what else to do,” Kennedy, also a member of the Greensboro City Council, said of the growing daily numbers. “They don’t know where else to go. They are coming here looking for answers, looking for direction and looking for hope in this frightening moment.”

The agency has expanded its hours from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, although it’s limiting the number of people inside the building to 25 at a time with a staff of four working 12-hour shifts. The nonprofit is adapting to public health guidelines that call for limited contact.

Other employees are working from home because the schools have closed or they themselves are medically vulnerable.

Kennedy is working on setting up an onsite health assessment tent on the nonprofit’s grounds, but until then her staff is taking temperatures as people enter the building. There are outdoor sanitizer stations and a portable bathroom for when the building is closed.

Kennedy said teams are visiting the local homeless encampments to check on people. Her eldest child recently reminded her that safety guidelines from as high as the White House call for people who can to stay home.

“I have a 12-year-old and a 7-month-old and both Allyson and I — both parents in my family — work in essentially social service fields with high-risk populations, so I get it,” Kennedy said.

“This is like many instances where there is a crisis in the homeless community — we end up doing the exact opposite of what everyone else is doing. That’s where we are.”

Across the Triad, the agencies are looking for individual partners even if it’s just this one time. They are also planning to work with other groups.

“This is not stuff that we can budget for, that we have budgeted for,” Garnette said. “Our shelter was already strained.”

With communicable disease experts saying large shelters are not the solution, Garnette said she hopes local governments will consider opening unused buildings.

“Can we look at opening up some vacant county buildings so we can spread people out?” Garnette said.

Garnette and others say that there have to be more conversations about the plight of the homeless.

“What’s not in anybody’s best interest is for people exposed to be wandering around because they have no place to be,” she said. “When I say the onus is on our local government and our local agencies, I’m not in any way being derogatory to the people who need the help. That’s on us.”