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Almost quarter of city utility users behind on bills


Almost a quarter of Elizabeth City’s utility users who owe nearly $1.5 million in uncollected electricity and water-sewer charges are eligible to have their utilities cut off for nonpayment by the end of the month.

That’s unlikely to happen, however, given local and state policies prohibiting utility cutoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the executive order Gov. Roy Cooper issued March 31, utilities, including those operated by local governments, can’t disconnect customers for nonpayment. The order is set to expire on June 1, but Cooper could extend it beyond then.

Under the provisions of Cooper’s order, utility bills aren’t forgiven. Customers will just have longer to repay them.

Residential utility users, for example, will have up to six months to pay past due utility bills that became delinquent between March 31 and June 1.

City Council was slated to vote on a COVID-19 payment plan for interested customers for the March 31-June billing due period at its meeting Tuesday night. But some city customers could be given more than six months outlined in Cooper’s order to get caught up under the city’s current hardship plan.

As a general rule, the city keeps additional catchup utility payments to under $100. As part of the city’s plan, utility users will have to sign up for any repayment plan once Cooper’s order is lifted. That means customers would have to sign up for a plan by July 1 if Cooper’s order expires on June 1.

“We believe we should continue this (hardship) practice as we move forward,” City Manager Rich Olson wrote in a memo to City Council last week.

As of April 30, 17 percent of utility users in the city were subject to disconnection and city staff expects that number to grow to 24 percent by the end of the month. According to Olson, those subject to disconnection currently include 2,389 residential customers and 255 commercial customers.

As of last week, the account receivable balance for the city’s electrical utility was $1,810,488 while the balance for unpaid water and sewer charges was $1,824,351.

Olson estimates that the city will have to write off around $300,000 to $400,000 worth of utility bills.

Cooper’s executive order also prohibits utilities from issuing late fees while it is in effect and that has already cost the city almost $61,000 in lost revenue.

Olson was selected last week by the North Carolina League of Municipalities to represent the organization on a conference call with members of Cooper’s staff to discuss local governments’ rising unpaid utility accounts. During the call, Olson asked that if additional federal COVID-19 funding becomes available, the state set aside some of it to help utilities make up their lost revenue.

If Cooper’s order expires as scheduled, the city’s utilities will resume normal working policies on June 2. That means penalties and cut-offs would start on any balances incurred prior to March 31.

Hairy situation: Barbers reopen, customers cheer

Jamel White went so long without a haircut he was growing concerned about the image staring back at him in the mirror.

“I was wolfing it,” he said, laughing.

White was among the dozens of customers excited to get their first haircut in months at Champion Kutz on Tuesday.

“It’s definitely a relief,” said White, while barber Anthony Turner put the finishing touches on his haircut.

White is no stranger to Champion Kutz. He’s considered a loyal customer.

“I refuse to go anywhere else,” he said.

But like hundreds of thousands of loyal barbershop customers across North Carolina, White hasn’t been able to patronize his favorite haircutting shop since March 25.

That’s the date Champion Kutz, along with hundreds of other barbershops and hair salons, was forced to close under an executive order issued by the governor.

Gov. Roy Cooper ordered the closing of all personal care businesses, along with nail salons, tattoo parlors, movie theaters, gyms and bowling alleys, as part of North Carolina’s effort to halt the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the highly contagious novel coronavirus.

On Friday, Cooper approved the reopening of hair and nail salons and tattoo shops, and allowed restaurants to resume serving dine-in customers. Cooper’s announcement was part of Phase Two of his plan to lift the state’s COVID-19 restrictions. Theaters, bowling alleys and gyms must remain closed for now, however.

While business at barbershops may be back, it’s not back to normal.

That’s because Cooper’s reopening orders included several conditions, including one that requires all barbers and hair stylists to wear face masks and Latex gloves while tending to customers. Customers are not required to wear masks but barbershops are encouraging they cover their faces.

Turner, who was wearing a mask, said it was a little uncomfortable but his gloved hands didn’t seem to hinder his ability to skillfully cut and trim White’s hair.

Champion Kutz opened Tuesday at 8 a.m. and by 2 p.m. had served nearly 30 customers, said Turner, who was joined by two other barbers.

Customers were required to sign in and then wait outside for their name to be called. Inside, no more than four customers were allowed at one time. Clear plastic screens suspended from the ceiling provide a barrier between cutting stations.

Turner said he was glad to be back to work and seeing his customers for the first time in weeks.

“We have a lot of faithful customers who’ve been waiting about two months to get a haircut,” he said.

Downtown, a handful of people were eagerly waiting outside Sammy’s Barber Shop on Colonial Avenue.

Shop owner Sammy Boyd said he was taking customers by appointment only but he had two other barbers who were serving walk-in customers.

“Busy, busy, busy” was how Boyd described his day so far.

He opened at 8:30 a.m. but there were customers waiting long before then.

“We had them sitting outside at 7 o’clock,” he said.

Boyd limited inside traffic by asking customers to remain outside until they could be seated in a barber chair.

“One goes in, one goes out,” Boyd said, describing the process. “It’s worked real well.”

Like at Champion Kutz, many of Boyd’s customers are loyal to his shop, too.

“Oh, yea, all of them are,” Boyd said, adding he was glad to see them again.

Laughing, Boyd also said, “It’s good to make a little bit of money, too.”

William McCaffity, barber-owner at Keystone Barbershop on McMorrine Street, was conflicted about barbershops reopening.

“I really don’t think the environment is right, right now,” he said, referring to the coronavirus and it’s potential to continue spreading.

Nonetheless, he welcomed the return to work.

“But I’m glad to be back,” he said.

McCaffity, who works alone at his shop, said he opened at 8 a.m. and by 3 p.m. had served about 20 customers. Like the other barbershops, he had a sign posted to inform customers to wait outside, where several chairs had been set up, and other precautions they’d be asked to follow once inside.

McCaffity was not accepting walk-in customers and he only allowed two inside at a time, including the customer in the barber’s chair. The precautions may take some time to adjust to, but McCaffity said he and his customers will get used to them.

“You’ve got to do what you’ve go to do,” he said.

Dentists reopening with precautions in place

Some area dentists are resuming non-emergency treatment but all are taking extensive precautions to keep everyone safe.

Dr. Jason Banks of Banks Dentistry in Elizabeth City has resumed non-emergency procedures, noting he is following the protocols established by state and federal authorities and by the dental profession itself. Those precautions include:

• Seeing fewer patients in order to keep everyone as safe as possible.

• Pre-screening patients when the appointment is confirmed and again at check-in.

• Asking people to remain in their vehicles until staff goes out to greet and escort them in.

“Patients are also escorted out after treatment to ensure social distancing is observed,” Banks said. “We also strongly request no extra persons accompany patients to their appointment as we screen them as well.”

Banks noted hand washing stations and hand sanitizer are made available to patients upon arrival at Banks Dentistry.

Patients must use a pre-treatment rinse before treatment and dental hygienists are only using ultrasonic instruments when absolutely necessary in order to reduce aerosols.

“Dentistry has one of the absolute highest risks of exposure due to aerosols produced from our procedures,” Banks said.

A big concern among dental professionals who are reopening their practices is that they’ll run out of personal protective equipment, he said. Many donated what PPE they had to hospitals and other frontline workers when it became clear they needed it more while dental practices were closed.

“Many dentists donated their PPE stock to our medical friends on the front end of this (pandemic). Everyone has been rationed PPE,” Banks said.

L’Tanya Bailey, president of the N.C. Dental Society, said in a press release last week that dentists are following protocols established by the Centers for Disease Control, American Dental Association and federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“As dentists reopen their practices across the state, our number one priority is patient safety,” Bailey said.

Bailey said patients should expect the following changes when they arrive for treatment:

• Their car is now the waiting room. This will help limit their touching of surfaces that may have been touched by others.

• Expect to be asked questions about your immediate medical history and have your temperature taken. This is designed to ensure someone who is sick doesn’t put dental staff and other patients at risk.

• Staff will be wearing more PPE to protect themselves and the patient from risk of exposure.

“These are all precautions that will help protect you and everyone you interact with from any potential risk of exposure,” Bailey said. “You can and should feel safe going back to the dentist for your regular dental appointment. Oral health is directly related to your overall health, so it’s just as important as ever to continue going to your regular preventive appointments.”

Dr. Pat Morgan of Morgan Family Dentistry in Currituck said the practice is still seeing only patients with emergencies or whose dental work had previously been started and needs to be completed. He said he hopes to resume non-emergency services and cleanings June 1.

The practice currently is only open one or two days a week and seeing about 10 patients on those days. Under normal circumstances, Morgan Family Dentistry would be treating about 15 patients a day.

Treating fewer patients a day does allow the practice’s staff time to clean and sanitize door knobs and all other surfaces between every patient, Morgan said.

“We’re seeing one person at a time,” he said. “No one is waiting in the waiting room.”

Morgan said patients call when they arrive and their temperature is taken as they check in. Staff are outfitted in gloves, facemasks and K95 surgical masks, he said.

Patients are administered a peroxide mouth rinse as soon as they sit down in the chair for treatment, Morgan said.

Morgan said his practice currently has a sufficient supply of PPE.

ARHS: 8th nursing home resident dies from COVID-19

Two more Albemarle area residents, including another resident of an Elizabeth City nursing home, have died of complications from COVID-19, the region’s health department reported Tuesday.

Albemarle Regional Health Services said both people were older than 65, and that one was connected to an ongoing COVID-19 outbreak at Elizabeth City Health & Rehabilitation, but provided no other details.

“It is with deep regret that we make this announcement and we extend our sincere condolences to the individuals’ family and friends,” ARHS Director R. Battle Betts Jr. said in a press release.

An ARHS spokeswoman confirmed later that the COVID-19 victim was a resident of the nursing home. The person is the eighth Elizabeth City Health & Rehabilitation resident — and ninth Pasquotank County resident overall — to die of complications from the respiratory disease caused by the highly contagious coronavirus.

The other person whose death was reported Tuesday was the fourth from Bertie County, ARHS said.

A total of 17 people in ARHS’ eight-county region have now died from COVID-19. Besides the Pasquotank and Bertie deaths, two have been reported in Perquimans County and one each in Gates and Hertford counties.

Meanwhile, the number of lab-confirmed cases in the eight-county region increased to 358 on Tuesday, as Bertie and Hertford reported new cases. Bertie now has 115 lab-confirmed cases, nearly a third of all reported in the region. Hertford now has reported 72 cases. Other counties’ case counts from Monday remained unchanged.

Among area counties, Pasquotank has reported 96 cases, only 29 of which remain active. Sixty-one of those cases — 42 involving residents, 19 involving staff members — have been reported at Elizabeth City Health & Rehabilitation. ARHS said it continues to work with the nursing home to address the outbreak of COVID-19.

ARHS said the agency’s staff also continue to work with Ahoskie House, an assisted living facility in Hertford County, to manage a recent COVID-19 outbreak there. Seven residents and three staff members have tested positive for COVID-19. In response, the assisted living facility is conducting a mass screening of all residents and staff, ARHS said.

Camden County, meanwhile, has reported three cases, only one of which is still active. Perquimans has reported 23 cases, only eight of which are still active. Chowan has reported 15 cases, only three of which are active. None of Currituck’s 11 cases are still active.

The region’s number of active cases on Tuesday remained about 30 percent of all those reported. Roughly two-thirds of those with a lab-confirmed case of the virus have recovered from it.

Statewide, the number of people believed to have recovered from COVID-19 was 14,954, DHHS reported Monday.

Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 cases rose to 24,140 on Tuesday, an increase of only 176 from Monday. The number of deaths rose to 766.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state on Tuesday was 621, a decrease of six from Monday. The number of completed COVID-19 tests, meanwhile rose to 352,331, an increase of more than 3,500 from Monday.

ARHS continued to urge area residents to practice health safety and social distancing measures to protect both themselves and and others from contracting the virus.