State of emergency

At least one new case of the novel coronavirus has been reported daily in Brunswick County over the past six days as the results of more than 290 tests trickle in.

The county issued a state of emergency Tuesday afternoon in response to the pandemic. At that point, the county had identified 10 positive cases. All patients had traveled outside the county, excluding one person who lives with an individual who is a travel-related case; both are now self-isolated at their home together.

Of the 292 tests administered as of Tuesday, the county had reported 98 negative cases, with 184 people still waiting for results.

As of March 24, North Carolina had reported 398 cases of COVID-19, an increase of 101 from the day before. There have been no reported COVID-19 deaths in the state.

“We know with certainty we have what’s called community transmission, meaning we don’t know how some people are getting COVID-19,” said Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, at a briefing on Monday. “They haven’t been exposed to someone who is positive or haven’t had a travel exposure.”

Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had reported 44,183 cases and 544 deaths as of Tuesday. Last week, the U.S. totals were 3,536 cases and 68 deaths.

Of the Brunswick County patients identified so far, all have remained under self-isolation at home since taking their test. All are in the company of one other adult who is also quarantined. Brunswick County Health and Human Services is monitoring the individuals and reported that all were “doing well” on Monday.

For each positive test, the county is identifying and notifying potential contacts of the patient. In most cases, the contact investigation has been deemed complete once the county determined the person did not travel while symptomatic.

During the state of emergency, government offices will remain open during business hours. However, residents must contact county departments via phone or email to schedule appointments for in-person visits.

People who have signs of the coronavirus should contact their primary care provider to discuss their symptoms before arriving at the office. People will likely be tested if they experience symptoms such as fever, cough and shortness of breath, in addition to having been in close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case within the past 14 days or after receiving a negative rapid flu test.

If someone needs assistance locating a provider for a test, they should contact Brunswick County Public Health Department at 910-253-2250.

More businesses must close

All North Carolina movie theaters, gyms, salons and other businesses that require close social interaction need to shut their doors by 5 p.m. on Wednesday, March 25.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced the executive order on Monday which also prohibits gatherings of more than 50 people and restricts visitation to long-term care facilities.

This is another action made by Cooper in an effort to further social distancing practices. Last week, he ordered restaurants and bars close to dine-in customers.

All people, regardless of their age or health, are advised by the county to only leave their homes for essential activities, such as going to work or running to the grocery store. If people are in public, they should keep a six feet distance from others.

Schools closed until May 15

Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order Monday that closes public K-12 schools across North Carolina for in-person instruction until May 15.

“I know many parents have been expecting something like this,” he said. “Many of you have become home school teachers in the last week, and I know this is extremely difficult for you and your children.”

Brunswick County Schools, on its website, wrote this message to staff:

“Right now, this means we continue as we are this week, operating as optional work days for staff while closed to in-person teaching for students. Please see supervisor for additional information on work opportunities.”

The governor said closing the schools until May 15 “is what we need to do to help slow the spread of this virus, but I am committed to ensuring our students get the best education they can this year.

“I have asked the State Board of Education in collaboration with the Department of Public Instruction and legislators to develop a plan that strives to educate our students through the remainder of the school year.

“That includes providing our students with as much remote learning as possible and a real connection to our schools even while the buildings are closed. We must maximize the time left in the year as much as possible.

“I have asked that the plan lay out how we are going to make sure that all school employees are able to continue to safely work and to get paid during this time.

“We arrived at May 15 by looking at the CDC and public health guidance, but as you know this is a rapidly evolving health crisis and if the guidance changes, we will adjust the order.

“I’d also like to take a moment to thank our teachers and other public school employees, including our child nutrition staff and our bus drivers.

“As of yesterday, more than 1,100 schools have served more than 1.2 million meals since schools closed.”

Brunswick County Schools wrote this Friday, March 20, on its Facebook page: “TEAMWORK: We’ll surely be over 7,000 meals served this week to Brunswick County Schools students by the end of the day.”

Regarding teaching, Cooper said, “Our schools are getting creative about how to best do remote learning. To that end, I convened a conference call of internet service providers urging more help to get internet access to students who need it as quickly as possible.

“And our school employees are still out there taking care of our communities in many other ways, especially our most vulnerable children.

“You went above and beyond before this virus came, you’re doing it now, and you’ll continue to do it when we come out on the other side of this. ...

“The executive order I am signing takes other steps to slow the spread. It lowers the threshold to ban mass gatherings of more than 50 people. ... I know these actions cause hardship and heartache for a lot of people. But they are necessary to save lives.”

Board of Education holds meeting

The Board of Education met March 20 for an emergency meeting to discuss the coronavirus and grant Superintendent Dr. Jerry Oates the authority he needs to act to the rapidly-changing situation.

The resolution allows Oates flexibility through May 5 to respond quickly to COVID-19 in various ways, including the ability to enter into contracts of up to $250,000 without board approval.

“Southeast North Carolina, we know how to deal with hurricanes. Folks in the west know how to deal with snow. No one knows how to deal with COVID-19,” Oates said at the meeting. “And that’s kind of where we are. Every step we make is in the dark.”

The board found there were many unknowns for the remainder of the school year, especially for how kids will be able to move onto the next grade level. Cooper’s executive order to close schools does not mandate that remote or distance learning opportunities be offered.

“We can’t promote children to the next grade level if they lose half a year of education. The kids need to learn,” said board member Gerald Benton.

Oates said the district could make decisions once it received guidance. There is also a concern about how seniors will graduate.

At the meeting, Oates said he was exploring the possibility of allowing seniors to take core classes through virtual public school. The district is also considering the minimum credits required to graduate.

“Because this is so unprecedented, I don’t think we’re able to really make decisions that we need to make … This is just the beginning,” said board member Catherine Cooke.

Southport declares emergency

Southport declared a state of emergency on Saturday.

The proclamation imposes several restrictions and prohibitions, including that all city buildings close to the public and be restricted to essential staff.

Public gatherings may not exceed 10 people and there must a six feet distance. Police Chief Todd Coring distributed signs to businesses on Monday to remind customers to practice social distancing.

Also, the state of emergency declaration orders all short-term rentals to halt business. Renters were instructed to leave the city by March 22.

Several staff protocols were enacted when the state of emergency went into effect. City staff members are telecommuting or leaving work early once their tasks are complete.

All city council, planning board and board of adjustment meetings will either be canceled or streamed live on Youtube. No one will be allowed to attend but public comments may be submitted virtually.

Any special event hosted or permitted by the city is canceled until the state of emergency is lifted.

With the uncertainty of the coming weeks, the Board of Aldermen held an emergency meeting on Thursday to review all these protocols prior to declaring the state of emergency on Saturday.

“These are unusual times,” Mayor Joe Pat Hatem said at the scarcely attended meeting. “When I was in medical school, there was no chapter on pandemics and COVID-19 so we are all learning.”

Hatem noted that Southport’s demographic is an at-risk community and recommends everyone stay home unless they “absolutely” have to go out.

“The wave of patients that may come out of this pandemic may overwhelm our healthcare system so it is so important for everyone, including our younger generation, to follow these measures,” the mayor said.

During this time emergency operations are taking place at Southport City Hall, rather than the emergency operations center at the fire department headquarters.

“This is not a natural disaster where you need multiple services: public works, fire, rescue, electricity is down,” Hatem said. “This is a totally different issue altogether so that’s why we’re doing it in that way.”

He added that the city is trying to use as little staff as possible to practice social distancing.

Hatem says Dosher Memorial Hospital, where he serves as the emergency room medical director, is not accepting COVID-19 patients. People are being tested at its urgent care; however, any positive cases will be treated at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center. Due to this, it is unlikely the mayor will be exposed to COVID-19 from his work.

Southport citizens with non-medical questions or concerns should call City Manager Chris May at 910-457-7988.

BSL Center to remain closed

In an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, Boiling Spring Lakes Mayor Caster along with the Board of Commissioners determined Friday that the extended closure of the Boiling Spring Lakes Community Center is warranted, according to the city website. This closure will be in effect through April 20 and may be extended as this situation evolves.

Program participants and fitness room members will receive a credit on their account during this time of closure, according to the website. BSRI Congregate Lunch participants are reminded that lunches will be available from 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday through the drive-up line in front of the community center. Participants need to call 910-363-0018 24 hours in advance to reserve a meal. Individuals over 60 who would like to register for the program can do so in the drive-up line during a day of service, but a RSVP 24 hours in advance is required.

Parks and Recreation personnel office hours are now 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

St. James closes town hall, POA office

St. James’ facilities have closed to the public.

The town declared a state of emergency on March 15 and closed its community center the following day. Last Friday, the town hall also closed to the public.

The staff is available to answer calls, emails, filings, pay bills, permits and payroll. Employees’ hours have decreased; however, someone is always at the town hall to answer the phone.

The Property Owners’ Association office is also closed to the public as of last Thursday. It is staffed and interactions will continue via phone and email. A drop box has been set up to leave plans, applications, forms, documents or payments during business hours.

Gas prices drop as motorists stay home

Gas prices are continuing to decrease amid the ongoing health crisis.

This week, the BP on North Howe Street was pumping gas for just $1.71 a gallon. The Murphy Express across from Walmart was advertising prices starting at $1.68. On Oak Island, drivers were filling up for as low as $1.66.

This is a result of COVID-19 in combination with a crude price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, according to AAA.

The association reported on March 23 a current statewide average of $1.94, 50 cents less than this time last year.

“This is usually the time of year when gas prices start to increase as motorists hit the road for spring break, but that’s not the case this year,” said Tiffany Wright, AAA spokesperson. “As we have all been urged to stay at home and practice social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19, we are seeing less traffic on the roadways which will ultimately drive down demand, increase gasoline supply and continue to push pump prices less expensive for the foreseeable future.”

Gas receipts are expected to stay low until Saudi Arabia and Russia end their price standoff and the spread of COVID-19 ceases. Last week, crude oil costs dropped to $22 per barrel, the lowest price since 2002.

AAA says there is ample gasoline supply in the U.S. and no disruption to distribution at gas stations.

Additionally, Cooper is assuring North Carolinians that supermarkets are still restocking shelves.

“Please, do not overbuy at the grocery store,” Cooper said at a briefing on Monday. “I’ve had almost all of the grocery store officials on the phone and they continue to tell me that supply lines are open.”

BCC’s precautions and response to COVID-19

Brunswick Community College (BCC) on Friday provided the following information:

BCC will continue to offer online programming, wherever possible. This will continue until otherwise notified. Workforce development courses and hands-on learning activities will be rescheduled at a later date.

BCC’s campus continues to be closed to all non-essential employees, students and visitors until otherwise notified.

All classes and activities at BCC’s Southport Center, BETC, and BCC Leland Center will remain suspended until otherwise notified. BCC’s Brunswick Interagency Program is also suspended until otherwise notified.

The Odell Williamson Auditorium events are suspended and the Fitness and Aquatics Center will remain closed until otherwise notified.

BCC’s softball and baseball seasons are canceled.

The Foundation of BCC

The Foundation of Brunswick Community College states on its Facebook page it has “received quite a few calls from donors asking how they can help during this time. While the long-term needs of our students are still uncertain as this situation unfolds, the most pressing and immediate need is food security for specific student populations. The Brunswick Interagency Program - BIP on campus educates, trains, and more often than not, feeds, around 130 adults with disabilities year round. Some of these students rely on the lunch program and food bank for their daily meals. The BIP and campus leadership are working right now to identify which of its students need non-perishable food items during the school closure and a plan for safely delivering those items. We are encouraging anyone who is interested and able to give a donation online for this purpose so the Foundation may use those funds to purchase the items most needed by our students. To donate online, visit https://www.brunswickcc.edu/about/foundation/giving/ and go to the ‘Giving’ tab.”