Orange County’s Leaders on the Coronavirus Response

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We talked to the chair of the Orange County Board of County Commissioners and the mayors of Hillsborough, Carrboro and Chapel Hill about the last few months

This interview was conducted in early June and has been edited and condensed.

The Mayors of Chapel Hill, Hillsborough and Carrboro at the Varsity Theater.

What was the defining moment when you felt you needed to make the emergency declaration?

Lydia Lavelle In my view, it was the week of the [canceled] ACC Tournament. Maybe the first case or two [had been reported] in North Carolina. Each of us individually was thinking about it, and then also [the three of us mayors] all communicated, of course, with [Chair of the Orange County Board of County Commissioners Penny Rich].

Pam Hemminger Hearing from both UNC and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools system that they were considering shutting down just kind of made it real. All of a sudden it’s real, and it’s here, and we need to be proactive versus reactive. 

Jenn Weaver Watching what was unfolding in some other places – like over in Italy – [made it] very clear. You want to act almost when it looks like you’re acting too soon. In Hillsborough, we had the State of the Town coming up. Trying to get a bunch of people in a room [for that] didn’t seem like a good idea. 

Penny Rich The Orange County Health Department had been tracking this since the middle of January. By the time the mayors and I talked, we were already on the same page – we need to get a state of emergency in for a number of reasons. If we’re in a state of emergency, then we can call emergency meetings with our boards, and we can also meet online. 

And then came your stay-at-home order not long after, at the end of March.  

Lydia Pretty soon after we each declared a state of emergency, we realized we need to start looking toward a stay-at-home order. We all had conversations about [implementing] that in Orange County out in front of Governor Roy Cooper [announcing one for the state].

Pam I credit Penny with getting us all coordinated together to have the same [stay-at-home order], so it’d be less confusing to the public. We have a lot of people who live in each of our communities and work other places, so we wanted to be consistent.

Was it a tough decision to make? 

Jenn I would describe our conversation like a little bit of a dance. We felt ready, the four of us were in communication with one another, and we felt like we needed this [in Orange County]. My memory of that time is that there were people in the community really asking for that, and we were hoping that the governor was going to do one for the state first. Then it became clear that maybe his expectation was that localities would go ahead and do it if they felt like they needed to. That was when we decided to just move forward.

Pam The messaging and trying to communicate with people about why we were doing it was the hardest part, because talking about flattening the curve and giving the health care system enough time to get ready – people didn’t understand what that meant. At that point, we didn’t know all the details we know now about how it spreads. 

Penny We were taking some cues from other states, especially California and Washington, where they already had stay-at-home orders, thinking we want to get ahead of the curve. Health Director Quintana Stewart was very deliberate in talking to us, and she was already advising Bonnie Hammersley, the county manager, to start sending people to work at home. We were trying to focus on what the state was doing and what the governor was doing, but he was holding his cards so tight at the beginning. So we had written that order up, and we were ready to go before [the governor’s] news conference. [To make it happen], the four of us, our managers and our attorneys talked a couple of days in a row about it to make sure that we were doing everything that we needed to do correctly, legally.

There’s a lot going on behind the scenes.

Pam Yes, there’s also getting the food supply up and running to make sure we have the vulnerable populations covered and helping make sure that people don’t get evicted. It takes a lot of coordination. I laugh when I get letters from constituents saying, “Guess you’re having an easy time of it right now with no meetings.” And you’re like, “I was on Zoom till 9:30 p.m. last night.”

Jenn I really appreciate Penny’s leadership here as the chair of the board of commissioners because so much of [the order] comes at the county’s authority. Having us all together on the same page is important so that people throughout the county understand what is going on. Contrast that with what was happening in some other counties where you saw the county passing a stay-at-home order, but not all the municipalities were on board.

Pam We check in with our neighbors in both Durham and Chatham counties to see what they’re doing, just to get a heads-up that we’re not acting in complete isolation. Because again, we have people who move between those borders and, as one representative says, the virus doesn’t know any borders either. 

So, what’s next?

Lydia We’ve been tracking the various phases as the state’s restrictions have loosened, and we’ve done some local adaptations to those along the way. We’re in the process of distributing face coverings throughout the county. Our group is going to be shifting to figure out how we ease back to a new normal given that the virus is still here, and it’s going to be here for some time.

What do you think that “new normal” will look like? 

Penny Our recovery team is going to start working, and we’ve got a three-month period right now to figure out what it means to bring us back to the new normal. If we’re talking about the students coming back, that’s 30,000 more people back in the Chapel Hill and Carrboro area – what does that mean to the residents who live here already? The K-12 schools are really struggling to figure out how to get these kids back. One of our schools in Hillsborough is supposed to start on July 15. 

Jenn That’s my daughter’s school.

Penny Yeah, how do we do that safely? There’s going to be a new normal – we just don’t know what that looks like yet. I don’t see my life going back to normal for a very long time, because I live with my mom, and she’s going to be 91. 

Pam Face coverings are going to be the expectation. The vaccine is going to be the changing dynamic for this, and we don’t know when that’s going to be. People are washing their hands. They are sanitizing. You’re seeing clerks having screens up in front of them. So it’s going to be a new norm, regardless. I don’t see those things ever coming down. I see that people want to stay safe, and until everyone can get vaccinated, which even if we have a vaccine ready, it’s going to take months to be able to manufacture enough. And like Penny said, we’re going to have to learn as we go along because we don’t have all those answers yet. 

Circling back to the vulnerable populations you mentioned, could you talk about those efforts to help?

Lydia Tonight at our council meeting, we’re having a discussion on how COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting our black, Latino and other underserved and marginalized communities. We’ve had an emergency loan committee where in our second round, we specifically targeted women-owned businesses and minority-owned businesses. We’re doing all we can to try to reach out in terms of information and in other ways through food, resources and housing to [help] these communities who are so greatly in need.

Pam The nonprofits have gotten together and coordinated with the town’s efforts and the county’s efforts. We did a food bank with the distribution on Fridays. Food for Students delivers every day to 30 sites through the summer. We’ve gotten [Federal Emergency Management Agency] and [Food and Drug Administration] money for helping support those efforts. But we’ve seen the [need for food] dramatically increase. [Inter-Faith Council for Social Service] is managing what they can manage at their shelter. We’ve also created a fund for rent abatement and utility abatement. We’ve been working with utility companies to make sure that they’re on board. We’re going to see some huge disparities as people don’t recover equally coming out of this thing. 

Jenn It looks a little bit different for every jurisdiction. When it came time for us to decide what we were going to do with the CARES Act funding that was apportioned out to the jurisdictions by the county, we decided to put that into agencies and organizations that do some of those direct services for vulnerable populations, like food, housing and utility help, because even though there’s a moratorium now, eventually people are going to need to be paying those utility bills. 

Penny And we just can’t stop thinking that there’s always going to be this need. It’s got to be in our minds that we’ve got to be helping out the folks who just don’t have the resources.

More recently, the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many other people of color have sparked nationwide and local protests calling for real and substantial changes to our policing and justice system, and to confront the systemic racism in our society. Can you discuss? 

Jenn I have never seen so many young people at a racial justice event in Hillsborough as I did at the youth-led march and NAACP-organized rally at the Old Courthouse on June 5. Their message was clear: Black people in Hillsborough and Orange County are hurting, have been hurting, and the situation should not be tolerable for any of us. From the organization – the lineup of speakers, the handing out of cloth face coverings and water and snacks – to the message, my [takeaway] was that these are the people in our community we should be listening to and following. 

Lydia I attended the Chapel Hill–Carrboro NAACP Youth Council-led march on Saturday [June 6]. What a show of force and support from the community it was. The COVID-19 pandemic and the George Floyd killing colliding as they did resulted in an odd look: Local protests and a march where hundreds of folks wore face coverings – a remarkable sight. And, as many have said, the George Floyd killing highlighted another pandemic: racial injustice.

Penny What we have seen in our community and across America the past few weeks are people waking up to a cause that has plagued our country for centuries. We all have to raise our voice against injustice, and Orange County residents have done this by standing together in solidarity. 

Pam It has been inspiring to see thousands of people organizing and protesting in our downtown over the past weeks. I have been especially struck by the diversity of the crowds, the involvement of so many young people and the powerful statements made by people kneeling in the street. Amid the sadness and anger, this unprecedented energy and unity gives me hope that we will move forward together.

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Jessica Stringer

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