CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Gov. Roy Cooper said in May that the state could ease pandemic-related restrictions on businesses — and partially reopen bars and gyms — as early as June 26. Instead, on June 24, the governor pointed to troublesome trends as cause for extending the second phase by three weeks to July 17.
Cooper said Thursday he will disclose next week whether to loosen or tighten existing restrictions as well as plans for the new school year scheduled to begin in August. Businesses including bars, fitness centers, bowling alleys, movie theaters and stadiums, and performance halls remain closed as part of Cooper’s executive order.
Other industries continue to struggle because of limitations such as no more than half-capacity at restaurants.
“I try to stay positive,” Michael Palladino, owner of Sip Bar and Cellar in uptown and Lost and Found in South End. “My confidence level (for reopening soon) is low because of the spike in other states. They’ve closed bars in Texas, in Florida. And it doesn’t seem like (Gov. Cooper) wants bars open.”
Health experts including Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have called bars risky because of the tendency for people to be close together while drinking and socializing, increasing the chances of spreading the novel coronavirus.
State lawmakers in North Carolina have battled Cooper over opening bars, gyms and bowling alleys, with the governor vetoing bills passed by the legislature and appealing a judge’s decision that would allow bowling alleys to reopen.
“We very much want to have all of the economy open as quickly as we can,” Cooper said on Thursday. “We have to keep the public health and safety of North Carolinians number one. We have seen these other states where you’ve seen elevated percent positives, you’ve seen hospital beds fill up, and it can jump on you quickly.”
In Mecklenburg County, the current positive test rate is 11.6 percent, well above the state’s target of 5 percent. North Carolina positive-test rates have hovered between 8 percent and 10 percent in recent weeks.
Mandy Cohen, head of the state health and human services department, said Thursday that Charlotte hospitals are of particular concern because of consistently increasing caseloads.
On Thursday, Cooper said North Carolina is approaching 80,000 Covid-19 cases, including more than 2,000 during the past 24 hours, the second-highest single-day total to date. And with more than 1,000 people are hospitalized because of the virus. Cooper has said navigating restrictions during Covid-19 will be like using a dimmer switch, making incremental changes as needed and constantly tweaking to keep up with rapidly shifting conditions.
Palladino and others who spoke with CBJ this week said they remain frustrated by the governor’s refusal to allow bars and nightclubs to open and asserted there are ways to do so safely.
At both of his bars, Palladino said capacity could be reduced to allow for social distancing and tables could be arranged to separate people into pods to provide additional protection. They agreed enforcing mask-wearing and enhanced cleaning and sanitation is doable.
All but a handful of the combined 60 employees at Sip and Lost and Found have been furloughed, Palladino told me.
Noah Lazes, co-founder and chief operating officer of Ark Group, the development firm behind the AvidXchange Music Factory, remains “super-perplexed” that concert venues can’t reopen.
Lazes said that if restaurants can serve food in dining rooms even at half-capacity, the current rule, that still means a lot of people can be in the same room without wearing masks. Current requirements are for masks to be worn until guests are seated for their meal.
“At a concert venue, you can wear a mask the entire night and never take it off,” Lazes told CBJ, adding that he isn’t seeking a “wild, wild west” of capacity crowds. Instead, he added, a responsible, reduced-capacity format could be adopted.
The 30-acre Music Factory includes three venues operated by Live Nation, the world’s largest concert promoter. One is a 5,000-capacity outdoor amphitheater and the others are indoor halls with room for 1,000 to 2,000 people at full capacity. All have been closed since March, as has a 400-seat comedy club on the property.
Without concerts and comedy shows, the Music Factory’s eight restaurants have suffered even after reopening. Bars remain closed and long-time tenant Wet Willie’s recently decided to close permanently because of pandemic-caused losses.
Bar Management Group owns 10 bars and restaurants in Charlotte, including eight in uptown.
All three of the company’s restaurants have reopened, but business remains slow. Bob Durkin, company president, said 75 to 100 people are staffing the three restaurants. Pre-pandemic, the bars and restaurants employed 500. Most have been laid off or furloughed.
Durkin said that because the pandemic has gone on longer than many anticipated, the situation for operators and employees alike has turned grimmer. Stimulus payments to individuals and enhanced unemployment have been or soon will be exhausted. With that aid in place and the full Republican National Convention scheduled for late August, Durkin said he and others in the industry locally saw hope of a rebound.
Since then, the RNC has mostly moved to Jacksonville, enhanced unemployment has not been extended and North Carolina’s cases and hospitalizations have not declined.
Bar operators also remain vexed by the state allowing breweries to reopen, saying the similarities to a bar setting are obvious.
Gyms and fitness centers continue to struggle, too. Since mid-March, when the YMCA of Greater Charlotte closed its 19 branches, memberships and revenue have plummeted. And, when the governor put the brakes on reopening exercise venues as many expected, the Y opted for a partial return: smaller fitness classes offered outdoors only, indoor and outdoor pools open to members, and day camps for children. Those services are offered at 13 branches. An average of 1,800 people use the pools and participate in outdoor exercise classes, spokeswoman Charla Muller said.
Even so, financial woes keep getting worse for the nonprofit Y system. Memberships stood at 62,000 at the end of February; it’s now 32,000. Muller said the Y projects a revenue shortfall of $40 million this year.
“We have developed various operating scenarios and every day we remain closed amplifies our precarious financial health,” she said.
Much as with restaurants, or bars if they reopen, the Y can’t sustain itself operating in limited capacity. All of which is stirring frustration among business owners and operators who, for the most part, understand the public health concerns, but want a chance to show that they can defy the odds of community spread.
Lazes said several times he finds Cooper’s restrictions confounding.
“Assuming we’re willing to social distance and assuming we’re willing to abide by the mask rule and assuming that we have the space to do it, why wouldn’t you want people to do that?” he said of bringing back live entertainment. “In fact, just for quality of life in this awful situation where people are being cooped up and restricted.”
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