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Council OKs outdoor dining options for restaurants

Restaurants in Elizabeth City can now expand their outdoor seating to sidewalks, parking lots, alleys and even onto the street.

City Council voted 5-3 Tuesday night to approve a proposal by Elizabeth City Downtown, Inc. to expand dining options outside a restaurant’s current footprint.

The proposal allows any retail business in the city to do the same but restaurants in the city, and especially smaller downtown establishments, will benefit the most by the temporary rules.

The temporary ordinance, which is only for 30 days, includes closing the 600 block of East Colonial Avenue on Wednesday and Friday evenings and most of Saturday over the next month.

ECDI Director Deborah Malenfant said the proposal will allow businesses to better survive the economic pain resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Businesses here and across the state have been negatively affected by closings and restricted operations for 2½ months now,” Malenfant said. “This will give our businesses a fighting chance at survival.”

Restaurants were restricted to takeout and delivery service from March 17 until last Friday, when they were allowed to resume dine-in service provided they follow certain restrictions under Phase Two of Gov. Roy Cooper’s reopening plan. One of those restrictions is that they limit customers to 50 percent of their building capacity.

Restaurants and retail businesses are still limited to 50-percent capacity under the city’s new temporary rules. What the proposal council agreed to does is allow restaurants that can’t reach the 50-percent threshold indoors because of state mandated social distancing requirements expand outside to meet the 50-percent number.

Councilors Gabriel Adkins, Billy Caudle, Jeannie Young, Chris Ruffieux and Kem Spence voted for the proposal. Councilors Darius Horton, Johnnie Walton and Michael Brooks opposed the move.

Those councilors who opposed the proposal voiced concerns that allowing restaurants to add customers outside could help the spread of the coronavirus.

Horton argued that adding additional space at businesses was not part of Phase Two of Cooper’s reopening plan.

“I am really concerned with where we are as a community,” Horton said. “(COVID-19) numbers are going up and it is very scary. I am concerned that we as a city should not get involved, in my opinion, in micro-managing the governor’s order. This is not in the governor’s order.”

Malenfant noted that cities and towns across the state have adopted similar proposals and that Cooper has not intervened. She also said that all outdoor seating areas would have to comply with the same restrictions imposed for serving dine-in customers along with health, Alcohol Beverage Control and Americans With Disabilities Act regulations.

“We are not trying to go outside the governor’s order,” Malenfant said. “It is a safe way for these businesses to expand their outside seating areas to enable them to be at 50-percent capacity. The businesses know the importance of maintaining social distance and they know all the rules and regulations that they need to follow.’’

Adkins said city business owners need all the help they can get. Adkins, who owns a catering business, said his own sales are off 95 percent since the start of the pandemic.

“If we don’t come up with something to offer small businesses in town to at least allow them to be able to make their rent, when we come out of this pandemic a lot of businesses are going to be out of business,” Adkins said. “I know the virus is serious. The people who recognize that they are high-risk, they are going to stay home. The people that want to go out and dine out and drink beer, they are going to go out. But they have to understand that if they do go out they have to follow the rules and regulations.”

Malenfant said the closing of a portion of East Colonial Avenue will begin Wednesday. The new regulations call for E. Colonial Avenue from the corner of Poindexter and Colonial to the easternmost property line of Hoppin’ Johnz restaurant be closed to vehicle traffic Wednesday and Friday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. It will also be closed on Saturdays from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m.

The new rules also will temporarily allow people to consume beer or wine in an open container in designated areas in front of and adjacent to restaurants and in outdoor parking areas of those establishments.

Businesses in the city would also be able to use up to 30 percent of their parking lot for outdoor seating or other retail uses.

Retail businesses are allowed to put out displays, tables and sale opportunities on public areas immediately outside of and adjacent to their business.

The new rules will be reviewed in 30 days and can be extended for an additional three 30-day time periods. But City Manager Rich Olson told council that an extension might not be necessary if Cooper allows businesses to operate at full capacity when Phase Three of his reopening plan begins at the end of June.

Angela Cobb, principal at Northeastern High School, is surprised with a parade outside her home on Church Street in Elizabeth City, Tuesday, May 26. Parade participants included current and former NHS students, school staff and law enforcement and fire department personnel.

Taco Bell window

Elizabeth City police say the Taco Bell in the 300 block of Ehringhaus Street wasn’t the intended target of a bullet that struck and broke a front window in the restaurant Saturday evening.

A number of employees were in the fast-food restaurant when the bullet hit the window about 5:30 p.m. but no injuries were reported, Sgt. Eddie Graham of the ECPD said Wednesday.

Graham said police believe the bullet was a stray round fired from a weapon in the Dyer Street area. No arrests have been made in the incident but police continue to investigate, he said.

Pieces of plywood covered the damaged window at the restaurant on Wednesday. A police incident report valued the broken window at $1,000.

Graham said police are also seeking criminal petitions for a juvenile accused of assaulting two police officers in the 100 block of Forest Skipper Drive on Sunday.

Graham said the officers were responding to a call for service at the Meadowlands mobile home park when the incident with the juvenile happened about 7:42 a.m.

Neither officer was seriously injured, Graham said. The juvenile will likely be charged in the petition with assault on a government official, he said.

In Camden County, Sheriff Kevin Jones on Wednesday also provided an update on a hit-and-run incident that occurred at the Causeway Marina earlier this month.

According to Jones, Terrance Lamont Mercer drove his pickup truck into the front of the Causeway Marina building off U.S. Highway 158 on May 7. The force of the impact damaged the marina building and knocked a couple of outboard motors off the wall and onto a floor. Jones estimated the total damages at between $12,000 and $15,000.

There were people in the Causeway Marina at the time on the incident, but no injuries were reported, Jones said.

After apparently learning law enforcement had been called, Mercer abandoned his truck and fled on foot, heading toward Elizabeth City, Jones said. Mercer was taken into custody by Camden deputies near the ABC store on the Camden Causeway, he said.

According to a sheriff’s arrest report, Mercer, 47, of the 100 block of Beanway St., Elizabeth City, was charged with hit and run, driving while license revoked and driving with improper or altered registration.

Jones also reported Wednesday on a recent scam in which the intended victim, a Camden teenager, received a text message from someone who tried to extort the teen by claiming to have incriminating photos of them.

According to Jones, the person sending the text sent both a photo of the teen and a photo of a body part and warned that if the teen didn’t send the sender a Google Play card, the images would be turned over to local law enforcement and the teen would face pornography charges.

To make the threat look real, the sender included an image of what was supposed to be a police badge from the San Antonio Police Department.

Instead of giving into the threat and paying up, the teen did “the right thing” and notified the Camden Sheriff’s Office, Jones said.

“This was just a scam,” he said.

Turns out the “badge” was a commemorative police badge the scammer found on the internet. Also, while the photo of the teen was one the scammer had found online, the photo of the body part, also apparently found online, “had nothing at all to do with the victim,” Jones said.

In addition, the phone number the scammer used was a Skype number and had no connection to any law enforcement agency, Jones said.

The sheriff said his office has received a number of complaints of scams, the most recent being someone claiming to be from the Social Security Administration calling seniors and trying to con them out of money. But this was his office’s first experience with someone trying to extort money by using images found on social media.

“This may be the scam of the future,” Jones said. “It’s what happens, I guess, when people have too much time on their hands.”

ECSU to start fall semester Aug. 11

Elizabeth City State University will start fall classes earlier than scheduled and follow an academic calendar designed to complete the semester before a potential uptick in COVID-19 cases.

The Aug. 11 starting date for fall classes is one week earlier than originally planned, ECSU officials said Tuesday as they announced the campus’s new academic calendar for 2020-21.

Along with elimination of the campus’ traditional fall break and two fall holidays — Labor Day and Veterans Day — from the calendar, ECSU said it hopes to end the fall semester before Thanksgiving.

Because public health experts are warning of a potential uptick of COVID-19 during flu season, the goal is to complete the fall semester before the coronavirus could affect campus operations, Chancellor Karrie Dixon said in the press release.

“I have to thank our campus community for its patience and resilience as we all navigate these challenging times caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “The ECSU administration has continued to respond to guidance received by the UNC System and ... Gov. Roy Cooper related to instruction, social distancing, mass gatherings, and now on reopening our campus.”

As part of the new calendar, students will have an extended winter break before they return to campus in January for the spring semester. For employees, the university will observe Labor Day on Dec. 23 and Veterans Day on Dec. 28.

ECSU also will be taking a number of measures to ensure student and staff safety as the campus reopens.

“We will be increasing cleaning and sanitizing of campus facilities, offering additional courses online, and adjusting operations to practice social distancing,” Dixon said. “We also are continuing to work on other details related to fall semester, including faculty and staff return to work, residence hall move-in dates, and athletic and back-to-school events.”

ECSU said it will continue to provide updates as schedules are finalized. It urged students, staff and faculty to visit the campus’s coronavirus webpage at https://www.ecsu.edu/coronavirus/coronavirusupdates.html.

MACU to try out new fall schedule in 2020

Mid-Atlantic Christian University has adopted a schedule for fall 2020 that packs two semesters’ worth of courses into the 3½-month period between August and students’ Thanksgiving break.

MACU President John Maurice said Wednesday the schedule change was mainly a response to COVID-19. He said the private university is hoping to get students to their winter break ahead of a possible second wave of the highly contagious coronavirus.

But Maurice also said if the format works well MACU may implement it on a regular basis.

A memo to students from Kevin W. Larsen, MACU’s vice president for academic affairs, explained that the fall semester will begin Aug. 10 and most courses will last eight weeks. MACU plans to hold two sessions of eight weeks each — effectively two semesters in about the time it takes for one semester in a traditional year.

Half of the courses will be offered in the first eight weeks of the term and the remainder will be offered in the second eight weeks, according to Larsen.

Maurice said if the format works well MACU might adopt it permanently because it has advantages for student retention and recruitment.

Asked if students would be able to earn a bachelor’s degree in two years under the new format, Maurice said it might be possible. Doing so would be challenging, however, because of the complexities of course sequencing and scheduling, he said.

But it certainly would be realistic to think students could complete a four-year degree in three years, he said.

Larsen told students “we are doing our best to make life ‘normal’ but there are some things we can’t avoid.

“Because of all the uncertainties associated with the virus it is critical that we try to create an environment that allows as much flexibility as possible,” Larsen continued.

One change, he said, affects MACU’s academic calendar.

Under those changes, new students will move into campus housing on Tuesday, Aug. 4. Returning students will be able to move in on Sunday, Aug. 9, after 2 p.m.

In addition, there will be no fall break, the two 8-week sessions will run back to back, and the semester will be over just before Thanksgiving.

“Final exams will occur prior to Thanksgiving,” Larsen’s memo explained. “When you go home at Thanksgiving you will remain home until the start of the spring semester in 2021.”

Larsen emailed a copy of the new fall calendar to students and reminded them in an accompanying email to monitor their MACU email regularly.

College of The Albemarle, meanwhile, remains on schedule to begin its fall classes on Aug. 17, COA President Jack Bagwell said this week. If there are any changes to courses requiring face-to-face interaction they will be announced next month, he said.

“Our hope is that we will be able to continue with face-to-face instruction in the fall, adhering to the guidelines provided by the N.C. Community College System office and the governor,” Bagwell said.