Editor’s note: Ocracoke Island is open. The Observer will post more stories as it learns of closings, cancellations, postponements and other COVID-19 related developments.
By Connie Leinbach
Although Hyde and Dare counties have not reported any confirmed cases, three Ocracoke shops have decided to close voluntarily in the face of the growing coronavirus (COVID-19) threat. There are now 14 counties in the state with confirmed cases.
“After much deliberation and after consulting with friends, family, and health care professionals, we have decided to close the Village Craftsmen until we feel comfortable that the threat of contracting COVID-19 is under control,” Manager Amy Howard wrote on the Village Craftsmen Facebook page.
As Ocracoke gets back up on its feet following catastrophic flooding from Hurricane Dorian on Sept. 6, the shop had just reopened March 9 after months of rebuilding.
In an interview, Howard explained that it was the socially responsible thing to do for her employees and the island.
Howard explained that she agonized over the decision but felt a hardship for a few weeks might help to stop the spread of the virus and not ruin the entire season. The shop will reopen “when we feel comfortable.”
Books to be Red on School Road also made the tough decision.
“We have had a great weekend at Books to be Red and I thank everyone that came in to say hello and support my shop and the island,” Leslie Lanier, owner wrote on Facebook. “I am heartbroken to say that I am going to close my shop while we are dealing with the COVID-19 virus. Maybe this should have been an easy decision to make but it has not been. We are all dealing with fallout from the virus and we are all making sacrifices. I do hope to be able to re-open within the next couple of weeks.”
Island Artworks owner Kathleen O’Neal also made the decision to close temporarily and posted that on Facebook.
Others posting on Facebook and chatting in the Variety Store over the weekend suggested that the island shut down to prevent islanders getting infected from visitors coming to Ocracoke to flee the outbreak in their cities or the prospect of people coming to the island and buying up groceries and staples.
Indeed, Variety Store workers noted that on Sunday folks from Hatteras were shopping in the store.
“The Sysco truck will be here Tuesday,” said Tommy Hutcherson, store proprietor. “We’re good.”
Sarah Fiore, owner of Bella Fiore on Back Road, was among some business owners against the idea of closing the island.
“We cannot shut this island down again,” she said. “I think that’s ridiculous. People need to stop bickering.”
She said her shop will have hand sanitizer and wipes. She has a website as does Books to be Red and numerous other island shops on which people can virtually shop.
Earl Pugh Jr., chairman of the Hyde County Board of Commissioners, said in an interview that he and other county officials are conferring about how to let county employees work from home among other measures to deal with the outbreak.
“We’re advising people to stay calm and use the precautions that are out there (from the Centers from Disease Control),” he said.
There are so many unknowns about this disease, he said.
“If you got people going off island, they could catch it,” he said. Restricting island access would be premature and would be a disaster, he said.
He and county officials have been talking to surrounding counties.
Dare County at 1:15 p.m. today declared a state of emergency to allow the county and individual towns to quickly implement restrictions necessary to help combat the spread of COVID-19.
At this time, the state of emergency restricts mass gatherings of 50 people or more, guidance that was established by the CDC on Sunday.
A mass gathering according to the CDC, does not include normal operations at airports, bus and train stations, medical facilities, libraries, shopping malls and centers, or other spaces where more than 50 persons are gathered. It also does not include office environments, restaurants, factories, grocery stores or other retail establishments.
As for local events, the WOVV annual meeting scheduled for this Thursday is canceled.
David Tweedie, executive director of Ocracoke Alive, said that although the Ocrafolk Festival, scheduled for June 5 to 7, is more than 10 weeks away, they hope to have a final decision in early April whether to go forth and that decision may involve a modified festival.
Fireman’s Ball May (23): The committee will make a final decision when they get more details and this, too, might be a modified version, said Stephanie Ihle, one of the event organizers.
Portsmouth homecoming canceled
The following was posted this morning on the Friends of Portsmouth Island Facebook page: “We regret to announce that we have no choice but to cancel our Portsmouth Homecoming, which was scheduled for April 25, due to the corona virus situation. Not only do we fall into the mandated ‘over 50 people’ category, we also have no hand-washing facilities and cannot keep people separated, per the six-foot requirement.
“We cannot take the chance of anyone unknowingly bringing this virus to Ocracoke, and we do not want you to become infected at our event and take it home. For those members who purchased raffle tickets, we will hold the raffle at a later date and will keep you informed.”
N.C. Ferry System
The N.C. Department of Transportation’s Ferry Division announced today that it is strengthening procedures to protect the health and safety of passengers and crew members during the COVID-19 outbreak.
“The safety of our passengers and crews is our top priority,” said Ferry Division Director Harold Thomas. “For that reason, we’ll be putting these measures in place until further notice.”
Ferry crews are increasing regular cleaning practices in seating areas and restroom facilities. Ferry employees are required to regularly wash their hands and are encouraged to wear gloves to control the spread of the virus.
In addition, passengers are now being asked to remain in their vehicles for the duration of the voyage, if possible. Passengers who need to exit their vehicles are asked to follow guidelines developed by the CDC, including limiting contact with surfaces, remaining at least six feet away from other passengers and employees and washing hands for at least 20 seconds before returning to their vehicles.
Guidance on preventing the spread of the virus from the CDC is also being posted in areas where it can be easily seen by passengers and employees.
Gov. Roy Cooper today requested that the U.S. Small Business Administration grant a disaster declaration for business owners across North Carolina facing economic losses due to the new coronavirus COVID-19.
“We know that the new coronavirus is already impacting businesses and this financial assistance will help,” he said in a press release.
If granted, the declaration would provide disaster loans to impacted businesses to help fulfill financial obligations and operating expenses.
Cooper on March 10, issued Executive Order No. 116 declaring a state of emergency for the State of North Carolina.