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Streets, sidewalks empty Saturday as Forsyth County health officials announce community spread of COVID-19

Despite blue skies and pleasant temperatures, it was a tough scene in downtown Winston-Salem Saturday as the city continues to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.

In its daily briefing, the Forsyth County Department of Public Health attributed a local case of COVID-19 to community spread, meaning the person contracted the virus without having traveled outside of Forsyth County and wasn’t knowingly in close contact with someone who has it.

There are at least 12 cases of COVID-19 in Forsyth County, and at least 250 in the state of North Carolina, according to county health departments and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. On Friday, Winston-Salem State University announced one its non-residential students, meaning a student who does not live on campus, tested positive for COVID-19.

While the state’s official total for Saturday is 184, county health departments provided new case totals throughout the day, after the state health department provided its daily briefing.

Health officials expect the case total to grow locally now that there is evidence of community spread.

“This is why it is crucial that people practice social distancing, hand washing, refrain from mass gatherings and monitor themselves for signs and symptoms which are cough, fever and shortness of breath,” County health Director Joshua Swift said in a statement. “If you believe you have been in contact with someone that has been exposed to COVID-19, voluntarily quarantine yourself. All persons with fever and respiratory symptoms should isolate themselves and call their health-care provider for guidance.”

While seven of the county’s 12 cases can be attributed to travel or close contact with a person who has the virus, four cases are being investigated by the health department to determine if they are a result of community spread.

The health department did not release any information about where the person who contracted COVID-19 via community spread had visited in recent days, or when they started showing symptoms.

With health officials across the nation asking people to practice social distancing, and North Carolina restaurants and bars closed to dine-in customers, downtown Winston-Salem was nearly barren of people Saturday.

On a typical Saturday, it is nearly impossible to find a parking spot anywhere on Trade Street, yet almost all of them were open. Fourth Street, lined with café seating for its bars and restaurants, was nearly devoid of all human life.

Nearly every business had some variation of the same sign in their windows: “Closed due to COVID-19.”

Some restaurants are offering takeout — Gov. Roy Cooper hasn’t banned that. The coffee shops still made drinks for customers, but gone were the tables full of people, replaced by barren concrete floors.

There are cases of the new coronavirus in at least 36 of North Carolina’s 100 counties. In the Triad, there at least 20 known cases, including seven cases in Guilford County and one case in Davidson County. Businesses everywhere are feeling the impact of the orders to close. The number of people filing for unemployment — many of them service industry workers laid off in the last week — is rising rapidly.

Davie County health officials announced Saturday the county’s first case of COVID-19, but did not disclose the circumstances around how or where that person contracted the disease.

More than 5,200 COVID-19 tests have been completed in the state as of Saturday morning, according to N.C. DHHS. Burlington-based LabCorp announced earlier this week it had the capacity to test 20,000 people a day.

Speaking at a press briefing, U.S. President Donald Trump said Winston-Salem based HanesBrands would begin manufacturing masks to help boost supplies amidst a national shortage.

As of Saturday afternoon, there were no reported deaths in North Carolina as a result of COVID-19. There are more than 22,000 cases of the new coronavirus in the United States, and at least 278 people have died from the disease, according to Johns Hopkins University.

COVID-19 raises worries of what new normal will look, feel like

The new normal under COVID-19.

The phrase has been used so often since being spawned in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that it has become a reflex cliche in responding to socio-economic tremors.

The online Urban Dictionary defines the expression as “the current state of being after some dramatic change has transpired. What replaces the expected, usual, typical state after an event occurs. The new normal encourages one to deal with current situations, rather than lamenting what could have been.”

The phrase has been used to make sense of something as enormous as the 2008 housing-bubble burst and Great Recession, and as comparatively trivial as adjusting to life with a newborn in the house.

This time around, at least since the novel coronavirus dominoes began falling March 11 in the form of cancellations of local, collegiate and professional sports events, the new normal feels more ominous, more invasive, longer-lasting and more disruptive of life as we have known it.

With the heart-wrenching sadness and suddenness of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, that killed nearly 3,000 people, we were encouraged to return to normal habits within days, with sports, eating out and shopping playing a healing and unifying role.

This time, we find ourselves isolated in our homes in simultaneous local, statewide, national and global holding patterns with so many unanswered questions.

We’re waiting anxiously for news that the COVID-19 pandemic has finally hit a bottom, that we can return to our lives with confidence that things are getting better.

Yet, none of us have a real clue to how long will be long enough in isolation to flatten the curve of the pandemic.

Weeks? Months? Longer?

As all of us adjust and sacrifice and cope, some local small-business owners have reflected over the past 10 days, sharing their concerns and hopes.

Here are their stories:

Reversing course

The shrinking traffic flow at Hanes Mall in Winston-Salem has Shalisha Morgan, the operator of the Geek in Heels kiosk, which repairs technology products, worried about her business and her family.

Morgan reduced the hours at her kiosk beginning Wednesday after Tuesday “was slower than slow.”

“There were mall walkers, teenagers and some families, but not much else,” she said.

Morgan opened the kiosk near Dave & Buster’s in early 2019 in hopes of expanding her business and providing a central location for her repair work.

“It also added credibility to my business having a mall kiosk, and mall officials have been very good to me,” Morgan said.

Previously, she provided an in-home service that she returned to Wednesday for additional income.

Morgan is stretching her operational hours: by appointment at the mall from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; in-home service from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and remote technical service from 7 a.m. to midnight.

“My clients are glad that I am providing in-home services again so they can limit their public outings to necessary things,” she said.

Yet, Morgan is stressed that having to pay rent to the mall without revenue from mall customers could put her in a major financial bind in a few weeks.

“I plan to apply for small-business loans when they become available, and I will try to secure as many in-home customers as I can,” she said.

Asked if mall officials plan to reduce or eliminate rent payments for March and potentially additional months, mall communications director Sarah Kotelnicki said, “We don’t publicly discuss the agreements we have in place.”

Morgan said that “it’s really scary right now because none of us know how long this will last.”

“I’ve got two children to take care, and they’re scared, too,” she said.

“I will just keep doing what I’ve always done to try to generate as much business and hope for the best.”

Wash your hands

Nike Roach, as the owner of Sixth Sense Health and Wellness Center, said he has always been vigilant, even obsessive, about maintaining proper hygiene with clients, staff and the public.

Now, as then, when anyone enters the center at 1012 Brookstown Ave., he immediately instructs them to “go wash your hands.”

“Nobody’s objecting to that request these days, and that’s really new,” he said.

Roach has had to lay off staff, as his client base dropped by about 50% in the past 10 days.

“We have to be prepared for shutting down based on what the governor recommends, but we’re going to continue to serve our clients for as long as we can,” Roach said.

He said he is coping with COVID-19’s societal impact by drawing upon his training as a military medic during Operation Desert Storm, the response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, in the early 1990s.

“When you see the enemy across the hill, you prepare for war, and you don’t necessarily wait for your commander to tell you,” Roach said. “We have to be prepared for the long haul because we don’t know when any of this will improve. We’ve really just begun testing the thousands of North Carolinians who may or may not be infected.”

Roach said he hopes the social distancing health officials urge has one silver lining: That “our leaders will take the time to resolve the holes in our health-care system, such as truly making testing available to all rather than being short-handed and hoping and praying that my neighbor doesn’t have it.”

“Fear can be a good motivator for spurring action. We can’t let complacency become our enemy,” he said. “We have to use this to understand we’re all in this together, regardless of race, politics or religion.”

Desire for unity, hope

“There is a lot of doom and gloom going on right now,” said Dixon Douglas, the owner of Cyclebar studio in downtown Winston-Salem. “There’s no ‘Pandemic 101 for Dummies.’ We’re all looking for a silver lining, something to unify us and give us hope.”

In the past 10 days, Douglas has closed his studio (on March 15) and let go of most class instructors while encouraging them to come up with ways to serve customers online with new playlists and training options “to give them their 45 minutes of reprieve from what’s going on.”

He said he is considering loaning bikes and allowing clients to freeze their accounts while encouraging them to maintain their memberships for the cash flow it brings in.

“We’re trying to conserve money as best we can so that when we reopen, we will be in as strong a financial position as we can,” Douglas said.

He said he has been “amazed with how Winston-Salem residents are rallying around the restaurants who have chosen to try to stay open.”

“We all want our downtown venues to be here to enjoy again,” he said.

Yet, Douglas worries that “there won’t be a big enough budget of goodwill” of consumers buying gift cards, continuing memberships, taking out food and curbside deliveries the longer the pandemic lasts.

“We all have limitations in terms of patience and finances,” Douglas said.

“We’re all living in unprecedented times and we’ve got to be able to continue to evolve with whatever new normal comes our way.”

Expansion on hold

The timing of the social restrictions caught Tim Flavin at a time in which he had just added a second location for his Moji Coffee + More business at the Forsyth County Central Library. The coffee shop had to close when the library did.

Flavin, the executive director of the business, opened his first store at 690 N. Trade St. in June, a nonprofit operation that employs people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, or I/DD. It’s “coffee that gives everyone a voice,” as a sign on the window reads.

Before the pandemic’s arrival, the shop had between 20 to 23 part-time “mojistas,” and a few supervisors.

With Gov. Roy Cooper’s restrictions on dine-in restaurants, there are now just four workers to provide takeout and curbside service.

“I’ve asked our employees with I/DD to not report to work so to not put their health at risk,” Flavin said.

The rapid-fire changes in what was and wasn’t permissible from a regulatory standpoint exasperated Flavin even as he understand the social-distance necessity of it.

“We tried to step up with every change to stay fully open,” he said. “We moved the tables 6 feet apart, we put more emphasis on online ordering of food and merchandise.

“We’re being responsive to the customers we have who have been so loyal.

“But our business is down to a pretty low percentage because there are fewer people working downtown and those who live downtown are understandably hunkering down,” Flavin said.

Unsettlingly in public

Ginger Hendricks, the executive director of Bookmarks, an independent book store of West Fourth Street in downtown Winston-Salem is offering curbside and online purchasing because she believes reading can play an important communal role in dealing with the pandemic.

“We’re trying to organize online book clubs, piano lessons by Skype, trying to make sure that students and young children have books to spend their time enjoying. We want to offer whatever slice of normal we can provide,” Hendricks said.

Yet, her few ventures out into the public have been “a little unsettling,” she said, because of all the uncertainty.

“I have been taking my 4- and 8-year-olds out biking and when we approach the playground that they have been to countless times, I feel like we have to turn around if there are other kids there out of a healthy caution of fear,” said.

Hendricks worries about her staff, some of whom fit into the elderly high-risk category or under doctor’s orders not to work.

“We’re trying to support them as best we can,” she said.

Adjusting on the fly

The Graylyn International Conference Center on Reynolda Road in Winston-Salem, like most hospitality venues in the Triad, is adjusting its staffing based on occupancy.

That means for the past 10 days, Graylyn officials have spent about as much time trying to keep events on its future schedule as serving current customers, according to John Wise, the vice president for hospitality services for Wake Forest University, which operates Graylan after it was donated to the university in 1972.

For example, this coming week normally would have carried bookings from families of high school juniors touring the university, along with handling reservations the families of graduates at commencement.

WFU officials haven’t made a decision about holding commencement. One is expected by March 30.

“We’re trying to offer as much flexibility as possible for the next 12 months while knowing tomorrow, we’ll likely have to adjust our plans, and every day has a tomorrow,” Wise said.

He is concerned about Graylyn employees being laid off for lack of business and is trying to find projects and other activities for them to do so they can continue to draw a paycheck.

“I want all of them to come back when we’re on the other side of this, but we don’t have any idea when that will be,” Wise said.

He said he is a “big believer in the wanderlust of human beings and their desire to travel, to explore new places and experience new things,” and is hopeful that whatever new normal exists won’t discourage or curtail that, or make teleconferencing the norm over in-person meetings and gatherings.

This is different

David Leipziger, the owner of Custom Caps Shirts & More in Greensboro, has been in business since 1995, adding a Embroidery by Custom Caps retail story at Four Seasons Town Centre. The store customizes a wide range of accessories, from all types of bags — book, diaper, duffle and garment — to wallets, blankets, scarves, and beach and golf towels.

His business weathered the 2001-03 recession and the 2008-11 Great Recession, but he is worried about how much damage social distancing will cause.

“This doesn’t even compare, because even after 9/11, we were only shut down for two days or so,” Leipziger said. “People could leave the house and shop. They can’t now.

“I rely on a lot of walk-thru traffic and small businesses and special events. I’m not getting any of that right now with social distancing and everything being canceled.

“I’m definitely selling a product and providing a service that is a non-essential,” he said. “People may not want to spend until they can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“I also hope this isn’t the new norm every time a new type of virus shows up.”

Degrees of risk: Advice differs on levels of exposure, health director says

Isolation, quarantine, social distancing — the terminology can get confusing to people who are not public health experts, and who are only trying to stay safe while avoiding panic.

Six Winston-Salem City Council members and two city staffers were told last week to practice self-isolation — or was it self-quarantine? — the official word changed the very day of the news release.

Joshua Swift, the director of public health in Forsyth County, said there’s been a lot of mix-up in the terminology that people are using, but offered this tip:

“Isolation is for the ill,” Swift said.

Or, as the Centers for Disease Control puts it, isolation “means the separation of a person or group of people known or reasonably believed to be infected with a communicable disease and potentially infectious from those who are not infected to prevent spread of the communicable disease.”

Quarantine, on the other hand, is for people who are believed to have been exposed to a communicable disease, but who are showing no symptoms.

Then there are milder terms such as self-observation and self-monitoring. Self-observation means to be alert for symptoms, but people who are self-monitoring should be taking their temperature twice a day, according to the CDC.

The six Winston-Salem City Council members and two staffers attended a National League of Cities gathering in Washington that brought together some 3,000 city officials from around the country during the second week of March.

Two people — from Colorado, it turned out — later tested positive for COVID-19, the new coronavirus. The people attending from Winston-Salem were advised to voluntarily quarantine themselves, monitor themselves and practice social distancing for 14 days.

The city initially said the eight attendees were in self-quarantine, then adjusted the wording to call it self-isolation, even though none of the eight was sick. Assistant City Manager Damon Dequenne said no one from the health department told the city officials about the distinction between quarantine and isolation.

Although city officials said the eight attendees were allowed to make a trip to the store for necessities, Swift said he never told the city officials that. Nor did he tell them they couldn’t.

Dequenne said that guidance came about as council members learned it was unlikely they had come into close contact with the sick Coloradans.

The council members and staffers were taking their actions voluntarily, Dequenne pointed out. Health officials never issued a directive.

“The intent was for them to monitor themselves,” Dequenne said.

As it turns out, more than halfway through their monitoring period, the eight Winston-Salem attendees are all symptom-free.

East Ward Council Member Annette Scippio said she had decided to stay home anyway, since she is among the older population that’s considered at higher risk. She said she is sharing her newspaper with a neighbor, but figures that’s OK since she’s not sick herself.

West Ward Council Member Robert Clark said he’s ridden to the store with his wife but stayed in the car. He’s walked around the neighborhood, he said, but crosses to the other side of the street if he sees someone approaching.

Meanwhile, in Guilford County, several High Point council members were in seclusion when they came back home from the same National League of Cities gathering.