Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday said North Carolina will remain under Phase 3 coronavirus restrictions as the state struggles to get a handle on the rise in COVID-19 cases.
The move was sure to upset and deflate many Charlotte bars and entertainment venues. They had been losing money and had only been allowed to reopen last month with capacity limits and outdoor seating only.
Cooper also said he will reduce the limit on indoor gatherings from 25 people to 10.
The Phase 3 order was set to expire at 5 p.m. Nov. 13. Now it is extended to Dec. 4.
It has been in place since Oct. 2 after being extended last month when North Carolina ranked sixth highest in the country with 14,552 COVID-19 cases in one week. The announcement comes as North Carolina has reached a record-high seven-day average for new coronavirus reports: 2,405.
Scorpio, a west Charlotte nightclub catering to the LGBTQ community, is operating at less than 20% its normal business, manager Michael Sharpton said.
He said bars and nightclubs should be treated the same as breweries, wineries, distilleries and bars at restaurants, which have been allowed to operate with 50% capacity indoors since May. “Just give us a fair shot at surviving,” Sharpton said.
As for the latest extension, he said, “I’m disappointed but not surprised.”
All this comes as Charlotte and North Carolina is struggling with rising COVID-19 cases and test positivity rates.
Cooper and health officials have voiced concerns about seeing a new spike in cases that could overwhelm hospitals as more people gather indoors, people experience coronavirus “fatigue” and don’t adhere to guidelines.
“Our trends have avoided spikes but they remain stubbornly high,” he said Tuesday.
But the governor also has said he does not want to go backward and reinstate certain restrictions.
The state’s three-phased reopening plan was announced in the spring as non-essential businesses were temporarily shuttered in March at the start of the coronavirus crisis.
Under Phase 3, bars, nightclubs, music halls and auditoriums can reopen with outdoor seating only at 30% capacity or 100 seats, whichever is less. Indoor seated venues for live stage performances are restricted to 25 guests, and can not serve alcohol, according to the order.
Many businesses, including some bars and independent music venues, remain closed because seating is restricted to outdoors only. Small outdoor venues, movie theaters, amusement parks, entertainment facilities and conference centers can reopen under the same capacity restrictions.
The new gathering limit is for in-home gatherings and social events. It does not change the reduced capacity limits for businesses as previously implemented, according to Cooper’s office. That includes 50% capacity at restaurants and 30% outdoors-only at bars, as well as gyms and fitness centers that are at 30% capacity, or no more than seven customers for every 1,000 square feet.
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‘This is our livelihood’
Hattie’s Tap & Tavern owner Jackie DeLoach was chagrined after Cooper’s announcement.
“I honestly expect it to stay like this for some time until people stop going out in big groups and hanging out like this thing doesn’t exist then nothing’s going to change,” DeLoach said. “I’m just prepared to have people sit outside forever.”
Her outdoor area is half covered and has several heaters.
“I don’t think people realize how much it affects other people. I mean this is our livelihood,” she said. “Until people really understand that wearing a mask and not begin in big groups is the way to fight this, we’re going to be stuck in this position for a while.
COVID-19 cases numbers are expected to continue climbing as the weather turns colder. But that colder weather could make it hard for bars to continue serving customers with outdoor seating only, DeLoach said.
Operating the bar with only outdoor seating has been hard, she said. And Hattie’s hasn’t been able to bring back employees at full hours.
“Our revenue isn’t anywhere near what it used to be,” she said. “So it has been a struggle, but we try to make ends meet as best as we can.”
Scorpio manager Sharpton said Tuesday ahead of Cooper’s announcement that given the data, “the best we can expect is to extend Phase 3.”
The Freedom Drive club reopened Oct. 24 requiring face masks and enforcing social distancing measures at its covered patio.
The club now has four employees compared to the usual 23. And, Scorpio is open only 8 p.m. to midnight Friday through Sunday. Normally the club is open 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. “It’s going as well as it can given the restrictions we’re under now,” Sharpton said.
Zach Medford, president of the North Carolina Bar and Tavern Association said he wouldn’t have been surprised if the governor rolled back the state’s reopening given its COVID-19 numbers.
Regardless, Medford said, he considers it a “failure in leadership” for state government not to have financially helped bar and tavern owners and others in the hospitality sector.
“There needs to be some type of targeted aid for members of the hospitality industry, who have borne the brunt of this situation,” Medford said ahead of Cooper’s announcement.
Music venues struggle, get creative
The Fillmore Charlotte on Hamilton Street found a way to bring entertainment back, in the parking lot. The venue launched its Live in the Lot series with five nights of outdoors comedy and tribute shows on Oct. 23.
Fans are seated at their own table in a group of two to four people at socially distanced tables outdoors and tickets are contactless.
“We are finding creative ways to keep fans connected to their favorite artists and comedians, like our Live In The Lot series, until shows can safely return,” said James Moss, general manager of the Fillmore Charlotte said in a statement Tuesday. “Until then, the live entertainment industry and workers need our help.”
Still, many local venues are finding it next to impossible to reopen given the government COVID-19 orders limiting crowd sizes and banning the sale of alcohol, said Gregg McCraw, owner of Maxx Music and talent buyer for Neighborhood Theatre.
As for fellow members of the Charlotte Independent Venue Alliance, he said, “I don’t think any one of us feels we can safely open at this point” given COVID-19 numbers continuing to head “in the wrong direction.”
And national performers the venues typically book aren’t touring amid the pandemic, he added. He doesn’t see venues such as his being able to open at full capacity until next fall.
McCraw said he understands why Cooper and state health officials wouldn’t want such entertainment venues to open right now. But how can breweries not be penalized by government code enforcement officers for packing in crowds, he asked.
McCraw said he also saw online how some Charlotte nightspots hosted packed Halloween parties with no social distancing, without penalty. “It’s just not fair,” he said.
The state needs stiffer penalties for nightspots disobeying Cooper’s orders, said Joe Kuhlmann, owner of The Evening Muse in Charlotte. “The bar and restaurant owners not following the orders need to be reprimanded,” he said.
‘Not going back to normal’
Many hospitality-focused businesses, like restaurants and bars, are hurting right now, Greater Charlotte Hospitality and Tourism Alliance President Mohammad Jenatian told the Observer. If those businesses are to survive, they need to continue adapting to the crisis, Jenatian said.
That means incorporating touchless payments, curbside pick-up and heated outdoor dining, he said.
“As much as we all want all the restrictions to be lifted, we’ve got to be realistic,” Jenatian said. “We know that we’re not going to go back to normal right now.”
Jenatian would like to see more enforcement on the statewide restrictions – because he said there have been a few “bad apples” not following the guidelines.
“We all know that there are businesses that are not paying attention to the guidelines at all,” he said. “And that’s not fair to the people that are doing everything they can to help control this virus.”
There were several high-profile incidents where businesses have ignored the restrictions during the pandemic, recently.
Olde Mecklenburg Brewery defended itself after county officials linked a three-day beer festival in September to at least five COVID-19 cases. And alcohol permits for El Centenario Night Club in University City were suspended in October after repeatedly violating state restrictions, the Observer previously reported.
“Unless there is more enforcement, the restrictions “only penalizes the law-abiding businesses,” Jenatian said.
Cases on the rise
N.C. Department of Health and Human Services on Monday reported 1,521 COVID-19 cases, the first time in a week there were less than 2,000 cases. The single-day highest number of cases since the pandemic began was 2,908 cases on Friday.
The seven-day average COVID-19 test positivity rate is 6.7%, above the 5% targeted by state health officials, the News and Observer reported.
And on Tuesday Mecklenburg County reported a rise in COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and testing positivity rates in the past week. Mecklenburg saw 380 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday – the county’s highest jump in daily cases since mid-July, according to state data.
The (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed