RALEIGH — North Carolina’s largest county issued a “stay-at-home” order for the Charlotte area, where the number of cases of the novel coronavirus have taken off, compared with the rest of the state.
Starting at 8 a.m. Thursday, the 1.1 million residents of Mecklenburg County largely must stay in their homes except for going to grocery and drug stores, keeping medical appointments and exercising. People can still get restaurant to-go food and deliveries, in keeping with statewide restrictions already in place.
People whose work is deemed essential in the order can continue to travel to and from their jobs. Violating the order can be a misdemeanor.
Gibbie Harris, the county’s health director, said Mecklenburg had more than 140 positive cases as of Tuesday afternoon. State health officials reporrted 398 cases statewide earlier in the day.
More than 15 states have some kind of “stay-at-home” or “shelter-in-place” order. North Carolina isn’t among them, and professional and trade groups are weighing in on whether one’s necessary. But Mecklenburg County leaders said they believe that there’s no time to wait.
“It is evident that too many people are not taking this pandemic seriously enough — that’s just the fact,” County Commissioner Trevor Fuller said during a meeting to discuss the order. “You can go into almost any place in this county and see crowds of people.”
In the Raleigh area, Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker said he was suspending the issuance of pistol permits until April 30, partly to prevent the spread of germs at the permitting area of his office and also because of a backlog of applications. His office said pistol permit requests have increased to nearly 300 a day, compared with about 100 a day normally.
Republican state legislators urged him to reverse course, calling his action “illegal.”
“People are already suspicious and on edge. It’s reckless to illegally suspend their Second Amendment rights just when they need assurance that they can trust government,” GOP state Sens. Warren Daniel and Danny Britt said in a statement.
In the meantime, the state government has been sticking to incrementally expanding business closings, tightening limitations on the number of people at gatherings and increasing health care system preparations to blunt the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Gov. Roy Cooper issued new orders this week closing several categories of entertainment and personal service establishments by 5 p.m. today. Schools are now closed through mid-May and gatherings of more than 50 will now be unlawful.
“Clearly this is an unprecedented situation for the people of our state,” Cooper said Tuesday during a conference call with other statewide elected executive branch officials known as the Council of State. Cooper’s administration says the advice of public health leaders doesn’t warrant a statewide shelter-in-place order yet. He said the state is preparing for what could be ahead.
“We’re coming up with an option for every single scenario, and all of that is on the table right now,” Cooper said Monday.
No deaths have been reported in North Carolina. There have been about 30 people hospitalized so far, N.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said.
The growth in positive cases comes as the number of completed tests in North Carolina has exceeded 10,000, Cooper said. He said an additional 13,000 tests are pending, with Burlington-based Laboratory Corp. of America heavily involved in completing them.
Attached to the expanded order in Mecklenburg County was a letter from the CEOs of the Atrium and Novant health systems urging a countywide stay-at-home order. The N.C. Healthcare Association, representing the state’s hospitals, also sent Cooper a letter Monday asking him to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order.
“We cannot afford to be led by a false sense of security created by a low number of confirmed cases,” Steve Lawler, the association’s chief executive officer, wrote, adding that supplies are running low around North Carolina.
The North Carolina Chamber’s top leader said “a complete shutdown would have a devastating impact” and praised state leaders for taking a disciplined approach, as the state does during natural disasters.
“Acting on decades of experience and avoiding a shelter-in-place will position us to rise from this crisis and begin to rebuild once it has passed,” Chamber CEO Gary Salamido wrote over the weekend.
The state’s workforce already has felt the sting of business retractions, including last week’s closings of restaurants and bars for dine-in eating. More than 139,000 new unemployment claims have been filed since March 16. More than 85% of filings are related to COVID-19, according to the N.C. Division of Employment Security.