A1 A1
'Ready to work': Cooper feels more pressure from Berger and others to reopen the state more fully

RALEIGH — Senate leader Phil Berger of Eden is pushing for counties to be able to allow barbershops and salons to reopen.

In a press release Wednesday, Berger said 25 other states, including nearly every state in the Southeast, have allowed these businesses to operate, with three more states allowing reopenings in the coming days.

N.C. Secretary of Health Mandy Cohen said at a news conference Wednesday that the plan is to move through activities in “a measured way,” starting with lower risks first.

Working on hair puts people at higher risk because customers are sitting and the activity involves close contact, she said.

“We still see a lot of virus here,” Cohen said. “We don’t want to see a surge of cases.”

Ever since last week, when Gov. Roy Cooper set into motion the first part of a three-phase plan to reopen the state, just about every day has brought forth a new opponent demanding things happen sooner, faster. And now some say they plan to outright disobey Cooper’s order.

On Wednesday, Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell said neither he nor his deputies will prevent churches and churchgoers from assembling indoors during the coronavirus pandemic.

“As long as I’m sheriff, my deputies nor I will forgo that oath and interfere or prevent churchgoers to peaceably assemble and exercise their constitutional right to freely worship,” Bizzell said in a news release. “Before I would do that, I would lay down my badge and go home!”

Also Wednesday, elected officials from Beaufort, Carteret, Wayne and five other counties in eastern North Carolina told Cooper they want to set their own reopening schedule.

State Sen. Jim Perry, a Republican from Kinston who represents two of the eight counties, said the state no longer needs a uniform approach to containing the coronavirus.

“It’s a complicated issue, but typically these would be local decisions,” he said.

Republican legislators and Council of State members have been critical of Cooper’s plans to allow business activities to reboot, saying they are unclear and too slow.

“It’s time to follow the lead of the majority of states in our region and the country,” Berger said in a news release. “Hair salon owners and employees can’t work and many of them still can’t get unemployment assistance from the Cooper Administration. Gov. Cooper needs to provide counties with the flexibility to reopen hair salons and barber shops if they choose.”

Counties should allow salons and barbershops to reopen if they see customers by appointment, require employees and customers to wear masks, and take other safety measures, the news release said.

“We are less than two weeks away from thinking about a move to Phase Two where we contemplate opening barbershops and salons,” Cohen said.

Maggie Lewis, owner of The Lather Lounge Hair Studio in Durham, said she is eager to work and questioned why ABC stores were allowed to stay open and shoppers are able to crowd into retail store checkout lines.

Lewis said she does not want to rush into a situation that is unsafe — she’s preparing to see clients again using masks and gloves — but she is also running low on money.

“I just feel like they put the cosmetologists on the back burner,” she said.

Lewis, who opened the salon 11 years ago, said she has been denied unemployment payments and said her application for a small business grant is still pending. She has been selling beauty products to make up for some of her lost income.

“It’s a time to test our faith,” she said. “I know God is going to get us out of it. I’m just ready to work.”

Marcia Martin, who with her husband Matthew owns The Grumpy Barbers in Apex, said they were eager to reopen and anxious to hear what safety measures the state will require.

“We have already started looking at what we might need to do based on what other states are doing,” she said.

Northern Guilford principal rides bike to honor her seniors, one mile at a time

GREENSBORO — When she’s in the saddle, her legs pumping the pedals that power the bicycle, Janiese McKenzie travels through time itself, her mind wandering back to the days B.C.

Before Coronavirus.

It’s not that long ago, really. Right around eight weeks since March 16, the first day Guilford County Schools traded classrooms for distance learning because of the global pandemic.

But at times it feels like an eternity to her.

And so she rides. Every day. Rain or shine.

For 45 minutes, McKenzie turns laps around the school property off Spencer Dixon Road, a trail three-quarters of a mile long. Her goal is 460 laps before June 5, which would’ve been the last day of school.

That’s 345 miles, one for each senior in Northern’s Class of 2020.

“I knew it was really crushing to the seniors,” McKenzie says. “They’re missing that final piece. They’ll never be back in their high school as students. And it all happened so abruptly. I wanted to do something that would honor each and every one of them.”

‘They’re my kids’

McKenzie knows these seniors well.

She’s been at Northern Guilford ever since the high school opened, first as a teacher, later as an assistant principal and the last four years as principal.

Most of these seniors are part of the first class that’s attended Northern Elementary, Middle and High schools from kindergarten through 12th grade.

“It’s a neat group,” McKenzie says, “and they’re my first group as principal that we’ve gone through all four years (of high school) together. They’re a special group to me because of that. They’re my kids. And we’ve had a good relationship.”

It’s that relationship that prompted her daily ride.

McKenzie wanted to do something to recognize each senior, but she knew she couldn’t — and shouldn’t — visit 345 homes during the pandemic.

She used to cycle for fun and exercise, joining weekend charity rides or competing with triathlon teams. But the hobby fell by the wayside when she became a school administrator and the job demanded more of her time.

McKenzie’s bicycle, a Specialized Allez road bike with Terry Butterfly Ti saddle, was gathering dust in a storage shed until this ride began.

“I started slow, just 10 laps a day, because I’m way out of shape,” McKenzie says. “I wanted to do something that required a little bit of physicality because — and this may sound really weird — I wanted there to be a little pain involved. I knew I’d be sore when I started, but I wanted to understand the kids’ emotional pain and transfer into more of a physical pain.

“There’s also that sense of victory, of overcoming. When I finish all 345 miles, I’ll know that every kid has crossed my mind and I’ll have called their name, whether it’s at graduation or not. Because every kid in this class matters. They all matter.”

Time to think

Each mile of McKenzie’s ride last between four and five minutes. She finds a sense of peace when she rides, a calm that washes over her like a gentle summer rain.

In those few minutes, she thinks of one senior and one senior only, calling out the student’s name at the start of the mile.

“It’s different, I know, but I wanted it to be about them,” McKenzie says. “When I ride each mile, I think about my experiences with each kid. At the start, I say a little prayer for their future and that they’re doing OK right now. Then I’m alone with thoughts about them for the rest of the mile. I keep going, on to the next one.”

McKenzie has a master list of every senior in the Class of 2020. Each day, she writes down a handful of names on a note card and attaches it to the cue-sheet holder on her bike frame, a checklist for her ride.

When she passes the visitor parking lot, she calls a name to anyone there. And a handful of people have been there to hear those names, something McKenzie didn’t expect at the start.

“It’s been received in a different way than I anticipated. I never thought anyone would come out and watch me ride in a circle,” she says. “But it’s been kind of cool to see people there. So what I’ve started doing is putting out on the school’s Facebook page who I’m riding for the next day. So if they want to come out, they can. I’ve been doing social-distancing pictures, if they or their parents want one. … The main thing is to acknowledge each kid, what they’ve done and what they’re not getting to do.”

Heartwarming, heartbreaking

In education, there are triumphs and tribulations. You win some. You lose some. But behind each win and loss is a young life of its own.

McKenzie has thought about those lives a lot in her empty school building these last two months.

“Most of my day I’m here in my office, working on the matrix, responding to I-can’t-even-guess-how-many emails,” she says. “I have people coming to pick up laptops. I have people coming to do driver’s eligibility certificates. We’re going to have a yearbook distribution before too long. We’ll do a drive-by graduation thing on the 5th (of June). … I don’t go out there into the building much, because it is eerie. I’m a very relational person, and it makes it worse, missing the kids and missing the staff.”

There’s time to gather her thoughts for the afternoon’s ride. Some students she knows very well. Others are quiet or shy, harder to know.

“I know them all, but with some of them, I just don’t feel like I know enough about them,” McKenzie says. “That makes me sad. I’ll come in my office and pull them up on PowerSchool and do a little research, see what courses they’ve taken. Are they my artists? What are their interests? You can tell sometimes by the courses they’ve taken, what their specialty areas are as seniors. Are they in drafting, engineering, architecture, networking or computer science (courses)? You can get a little picture of who they are.”

Some thoughts are heartwarming. Others are heartbreaking.

“I think a lot about them, and I worry. I wonder how they’re doing,” McKenzie says. “One kid I rode for the other day just found out his mom has cancer. His grandfather recently passed away, and he’s not going to make it, not going to graduate. That’s one that really tears at your heart, and you spend that whole mile trying to send positive thoughts his way. …

“I have one who just came back for fifth year of high school at 19, and he’s going to make it. He met the graduation requirements. … We just had one win the Trinity (scholarship) to go to Duke, and I can’t hug her and congratulate her. Her dad passed away a little while ago, and I know this is super meaningful to her. Her dream was go to Duke, and now she’s going to get to because of the full ride.”

The list goes on and on.

The boy who survived a car accident and is headed off to Hampden-Sydney to play football.

The girl who plans to run track at UNC-Charlotte.

The boy who earned a full college scholarship through Navy ROTC.

“These are the things I think about out there,” McKenzie says. “I think of them one right after another. … I can remember the smiles, laughs we’ve had. This group has made a lot of good memories.”

All of those memories were made in the time B.C.

And Janiese McKenzie rides to honor them.

“There’s a silence when you’re riding a bike,” she says. “It’s a place where you don’t hear anything else; you’re just inside your own head. I’m riding in a circle and don’t have to worry about finding my next turn. That’s the cool part of this, is finding those moments, those four or five minutes, to put that one kid in your head and remember what they’ve done. It becomes a conversation, in a weird way. And my end of it is always, ‘I hope you’re doing well.’”

An interesting article in today's newspaper

Miller time: An ESPN panel says UNCG’s Wes Miller is the best college basketball coach under 40. Page C1

Wednesday's COVID-19 numbers

Wednesday’s COVID-19 numbers

Number of N.C. cases: 15,816, as of 10:40 a.m. Wednesday, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. That’s an increase of 470 cases since Tuesday.

In Guilford County: According to state health officials, Guilford County has recorded 670 cases of COVID-19 and 44 related deaths as of Wednesday morning’s report. That’s an increase of 44 new cases and two deaths since Tuesday.

N.C. deaths: 597 statewide — an increase of 20 since Tuesday. The counties of Mecklenburg (61) and Guilford (44) have the highest number of coronavirus deaths in the state.

Across the U.S.: The number of confirmed and probable cases in the United States and its territories as of Tuesday afternoon was 1.34 million, an increase of 18,106 new cases since Monday, according to the most recent update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC on Tuesday reported 80,820 total deaths, an increase of 1,064 from Monday.

Stalled: COVID-19's crippling effect on cash flow has curtailed Greensboro road projects

GREENSBORO — Local officials responded to the N.C. Department of Transportation’s pandemic-fueled money woes Wednesday by rescheduling about $71 million in spending on area construction projects.

Projects pushed back from one to five years included widening a stretch of Battleground Avenue, improvements to several interstate interchanges and two projects at Piedmont Triad International Airport.

In a 90-minute online meeting, the local Metropolitan Planning Organization voted unanimously for the changes. Board members, though, said they hoped some of the projects could be put back on their original schedules once the pandemic is history.

“The only thing I can guarantee about this list is that it will change again because right now we are not confident about how the revenue picture looks more than three months out,” said Mike Fox, a Greensboro lawyer who serves on both the local board and as chairman of the state Board of Transportation.

Projects already under construction are continuing, which is good news for the last leg of the Greensboro Urban Loop where work is on schedule between Lawndale Drive and U.S. 29, state Division 7 Engineer Mike Mills said.

“He’s still looking to have the section between Lawndale and North Elm Street open later this year,” Mills said of the contractor.

Mills said that highway improvements near the Publix distribution center that is under construction east of the city also remain on track.

Wednesday’s local reshuffling was part of a statewide response required because even before the COVID-19 crisis turned the economy inside out, NCDOT’s finances were worn thin by repairs stemming from previous years of hurricane damage and costs linked to successful lawsuits challenging the agency’s condemnation powers.

But those problems were magnified by the pandemic’s impact on fuel and vehicle sales that provide much of the department’s tax revenue.

Fox said NCDOT is looking at a $300 million shortfall in the immediate future.

“At some point, people will start driving more so the revenue will improve,” he said.

But the question for future transportation spending hinges on what type of economic recovery follows the pandemic and how fast it occurs, Fox said.

At his divisional level, which includes Guilford, Rockingham, Alamance, Caswell and Orange counties, Mills said 31 projects were in preparation before the coronavirus pandemic took hold, but that number has since been cut to 10 in order to conserve money.

He said that if they haven’t already, area residents soon will notice roadways looking unkempt because regular mowing normally started earlier in the spring won’t begin until next month.

“We’ve laid off about 50% of our temps and embedded contractors,” Mills said.

The local group, known by its MPO acronym, is the planning arm for Greensboro-area transportation projects. Its voting members include Fox, Mayor Nancy Vaughan and other elected Guilford County officials.

City Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter chairs the board. Members discussed Wednesday whether there was any way to avoid one of the project delays — the interchange at Interstate 40 and Rock Creek Dairy Road.

Board member and Guilford County Commissioner Alan Branson said that without the planned upgrade, future traffic turmoil could be expected because of commercial building already under way and other economic development plans soon to take shape in that area.

“We already have problems during rush hour,” Branson said of the interchange.

Initially planned for construction in 2026, the interchange project was moved back at least three years by Wednesday’s vote.

Mills said that given NCDOT’s current financial predicament, “it might be difficult to move it up much more.”