Coronavirus COVID-19 2020

Hyde commissioners get COVID-19 update, discuss visitor access, approve new tram contracts

Bicyclists on Irvin Garrish Highway wear masks while getting fresh air. Photo: C. Leinbach

By Connie Leinbach

As of Monday morning, Hyde County still has not logged a case of the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

Hyde County Health Director Luanna Gibbs told the Hyde County commissioners Monday night at their monthly meeting that Hyde was one of 10 counties still without the virus that’s caused a worldwide pandemic, but news reports Tuesday morning said that number was now eight.

Gibbs, reporting to the commissioners via a computer connection while the commissioners conducted their meeting live on Facebook, said Hyde’s lack of cases does not mean the virus is not here.

“It’s likely because we’re testing fewer individuals based on guidelines that we’ve received from state Department of Health and Human Services,” she said about the lack of confirmed cases. “It just means we don’t have a lab confirmation.”

She said her department has chosen not to disclose the number of tests they’ve performed “because we don’t want to create false hopes or false fears.”

Gibbs said the reason Hyde might not yet have lab confirmation is because some people have had no symptoms or minimal symptoms; some have had symptoms, but maybe chose not to seek medical care.

“There are people who sought medical care, but maybe were not tested,” she continued. “And then there’s always the potential that a test with COVID-19 can report that it’s negative when in fact it’s positive.”

The state lab can give a 24-hour turnaround time, but many of the commercial labs can take from seven to 10 days, she said. Gibbs did not indicate to which labs the Hyde tests were sent to nor how backed up any of these labs are.

Nevertheless, Gibbs said that as of 11 a.m. Monday, there was an 800 percent increase of confirmed cases in the state since Friday with 270 hospitalizations and 33 deaths.

As other state officials continue to say, Gibbs urged all residents to follow the current executive orders: Stay at home except for travel that is required and when doing so wear a cloth face mask; wash or sanitize hands frequently; reduce the number of people you’re exposed to and practice social distancing.

“Please, please do not lower your guard,” she said.

On a related note, the commissioners, at the end of the meeting, discussed the COVID-19 access restrictions both on Ocracoke and the mainland.

Visitors are restricted from accessing both the mainland and Ocracoke, but non-resident property owners are restricted from Ocracoke unless they have a building permit with which to do significant work on their Dorian-damaged houses.

Hyde County Manager Kris Noble explained that the island restrictions have evolved as this crisis evolved.

Noble said the Ocracoke Deputy Control Group was blindsided when Dare County enacted its visitor restriction on March 17.

“But we pulled together the Ocracoke control group and we received a recommendation from them to close the island to visitors and non-resident property owners unless they were performing hurricane Dorian recovery action,” she said.

“After several days of that restriction being in place, it seemed to the citizens of Ocracoke that there were still too many people on the island and (the Control Group) came back together and they asked to further restrict the island restrictions to require non-resident property owners to have a building permit for access. There’s where we currently stand with the island.”

Then there’s Gov. Roy Cooper’s Stay at Home order.

“That’s been adopted,” she said, “but he is not enforcing the stay at home order with law enforcement personnel.

Ocracoke’s commissioner Tom Pahl noted that the Dare County checkpoints have helped Ocracoke.

He said some non-resident property owners have been angry at the tightened restrictions.

“And the fact is, we have a situation here where we’re dealing with two crises, not just one,” he said. “We’re trying to get the island put back together after Hurricane Dorian at same time to respond to the Covid 19 crisis.”

Hyde County Sheriff Guire Cahoon noted that over the weekend he and his deputies turned away around 39 vehicles which held 101 people.

Cahoon said he’s gotten calls from mainland businesses (grocery, gas) saying there’s an influx of visitors with out of state plates.

Yet residents are traveling outside the county, too, Earl Pugh Jr, commissioner chairman, noted.

“We have more people that are living in the county that travel outside the county every day,” he said.  “They go to grocery stores and Lowe’s in Washington; they go to the doctor, and what’s to say that they can’t bring it back?”

Residents of Beaufort, Tyrrell, Washington and Hyde may travel between counties. Hyde, Dare, Currituck and Tyrrell counties may freely travel between each other.

Commissioner Ben Simmons III suggested that Hyde put on its website a plea to county citizens to dissuade relatives from coming here during this crisis.

In other business, the commissioners approved a five-year contract for trash removal with Republic Services of Aulander, Bertie County.

Noble said the company will send their contract and then the county will negotiate. Pahl said container service was most important on the island and he and Noble will review the contract.

The commissioners approved four agreements for resumption of tram service this summer in conjunction with the passenger ferry.

Last year, the NCDOT had purchased the trams and leased them to Hyde County for $1, said county attorney Franz Holscher. Now, the county will purchase the trams, thanks to a grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation, but the county and NCDOT will pay equally for the yearly operating costs.

Hurricane Dorian damaged the trams beyond repair and since the receipt of this grant, Golden LEAF has agreed to fund replacing of the tram stops and storage building, Noble said. The county still is in a three-year contract with the tram operator (Joseph Ramunni) and will apply yearly to the Ocracoke Occupancy Tax fund for half of the yearly operating costs.

Proceeds of the sale of the damaged trams will be used for tram operation.

Holscher said that Bill Rich, who’s coordinating the program, is trying to get flood insurance for the trams, though that might not be possible. In the absence of flood insurance would be to require the operator to get the trams off the island in the threat of hurricanes.

Also, in light of the COVID-19 crisis that is crippling the local economy, the commissioners voted to further extend a waiver of Hyde County revolving loan payments, interest free, to Aug. 1.

Reliable updated COVID-19 information is available from several credible sources including: the CDC at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus, North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services at www.ncdhhs.gov/coronavirus, or Hyde County Department of Health at https://www.hydecountync.gov/ocracoke-covid/index.php.

General information about COVID-19 (and other emergencies) is available from the state of North Carolina 2-1-1 System by dialing 2-1-1 or 1-888-892-1162, or by visiting https://www.nc211.org/.

Text COVIDNC to 898-211 to receive SMS text message updates about COVID-19 from the state.