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Cooper orders utilities to halt disconnections

RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order Tuesday prohibiting utilities in the state from disconnecting customers unable to pay their bills during the coronavirus pandemic.

The order applies to all electric, gas, water and wastewater services for the next 60 days, Cooper said.

Cooper’s order further directs utilities to give residential customers at least six months to pay their outstanding bills and prohibits the companies from collecting fees, penalties or interest for late payments.

Cooper said he also strongly encouraged telecommunications companies that provide phone, cable and internet services to follow the same rules.

The order also encourages banks not to charge customers for overdraft fees, late fees and other penalties. Cooper also strongly encouraged landlords to “follow the spirit” of Chief Justice Cheri Beasley’s order last month and delay any evictions that are already entered in the court system.

“This action is particularly important since tomorrow is the first of the month, and I know that’s a date many families fear when they can’t make ends meet,” Cooper said in a press release. “These protections will help families stay in their homes and keep vital services like electricity, water, and communications going as we stay at home.”

Cooper was referring to his executive order on Friday that ordered all North Carolinians to stay at home for the next 30 days as a way to stop the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus. As of Tuesday, North Carolina had 1,498 COVID-19 cases and eight deaths.

Tuesday’s order was the latest Cooper has issued to stop the spread of conoravirus. He previously ordered all schools statewide to close for two weeks before amending the order to have schools remain closed through May 15. He also has ordered all restaurants and bars in the state to close to dine-in customers during the pandemic, allowing them to stay open for take out and delivery service. Prior to the stay-at-home order he also ordered all hair salons, barbershops, nail salons, bowling alleys, movie theaters and tattoo parlors to close.

Those orders have come amid vast economic disruption in the state because of the pandemic. Cooper issued a statement Sunday saying the state had received 270,000 claims for unemployment insurance over the past two weeks, most related to COVID-19 as businesses either close or scale back their operations. The state reported about 22,000 unemployment claims on Saturday alone, The Associated Press reported. By comparison, the state received about 7,500 claims in the first two weeks of March.

On Tuesday The AP reported that North Carolina’s restaurant and hotel operators are seeking state financial aid and tax deadline relief, saying the closings and minimal travel from COVID-19 have thrown more than 370,000 of their employees out of work.

Cooper noted at a press conference of the state’s Coronavirus Task Force on Tuesday that a number of companies have already voluntarily announced policies to prevent shutoffs. Those he mentioned include Duke Energy, Dominion Energy, AT&T, and local electric co-ops. The city of Elizabeth City has announced it has suspended all disconnections through April 30.

Cooper’s order comes in the wake of a letter signed by 30 public interest organizations and sent to the governor, urging him to take action to halt utility shutoffs during the pandemic.

“We commend the governor for his action,” said Al Ripley of the N.C. Justice Center.

“This is a significant step in helping North Carolinians through this crisis and protecting the public health.”

Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, also praised the move.

“By urging all cable and internet providers not to disconnect subscribers while COVID-19 infections continue to necessitate distance learning and telecommuting, Governor Cooper took the necessary steps to allow for people to work and learn from home, regardless of individual circumstances,” Jewell said.

Meeting a need during a pandemic

Joshua Swain (left), a member of New Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, at Third and Walnut streets in Elizabeth City, helps Crystal Walker carry food items to her car during a food giveaway at the church, Thursday. New Calvary plans to distribute free food to anyone needing it every Monday and Thursday at 11 a.m. for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Currituck enforcing Outer Banks visitor ban with water patrols

CURRITUCK — Dozens of motorists on Monday were denied access to the Outer Banks over the Wright Memorial Bridge as Currituck and Dare counties continue to enforce a ban on visitors and non-resident property owners because of the COVID-19 crisis.

The Currituck Sheriff’s Office is also patrolling the waters around the county’s portion of the Outer Banks.

Dare County has a checkpoint on its side of the Wright Memorial Bridge which is manned 24 hours a day with four to six deputies.

Only Currituck and Dare county residents and people who work on the Outer Banks are allowed access.

“If you are “Joe Johnson of Hampton, Va., you are not getting in (over the bridge),” said Currituck Commissioner Kevin McCord, who is also a sergeant with the Currituck Sheriff’s Department. “If your driver’s license does not say Currituck or Dare (counties), you are not coming over the bridge. We probably turned away 50 people (Monday).’’

Currituck Sheriff Matt Beickert told the board of commissioners Monday night that sheriff’s deputies recently set up a monitoring position in Corolla after hearing reports that people were being “smuggled” into that part of the county. Deputies found no evidence of any smuggling and the department is no longer monitoring that area.

“At the Duck-Corolla line, we had reports of people being smuggled in commercial-type vehicles,” Beickert said. “Our purpose there was to deter and catch anyone that used that method to get people into Corolla.”

The Currituck Sheriff’s Department is also patrolling waterways around the Currituck Outer Banks and Beickert said that effort will continue. The patrols are intercepting boats before they reach the county and educating boaters about Currituck’s order banning visitors and non-resident property owners from that area of the county.

“We will be out there,” Beickert said. “Our emergency services director is helping us potentially get more boats out on the water. We have turned more than several boats around. Basically, they were not aware of our declaration. Nobody went against our recommendations as far as following the declaration if that was their intent.’’

McCord and fellow Deputy Kevin Bray patrolled the water around Carova on Sunday and McCord said they turned away around two dozen people.

“Everyone pretty much complied,” McCord said. “We were looking for luggage, we were looking to see if someone was trying to smuggle someone in. We had a lot of fishermen, and they might have had Virginia boats, they were fishing the canals and we watched them.’’

Beickert said businesses in the county that have been closed, or providing limited service like restaurants, because of COVID-19 are following state guidelines.

“Everybody seems to be following these guidelines that have been put in place already,” Beickert said.

Beickert told the board that there is no plan to conduct random stops of motorists during the state’s shelter-at-home order.

He said he made that determination after speaking with the N.C. Sheriff’s Association, who advised him there are so many activities allowed under the stay-at-home order — going to fast-food restaurants, participating in outside activities at a park, going to work — that it would “indiscriminately cause” deputies to stop motorists “without a reasonable suspicion” that they weren’t engaged in an essential activity.

“At this time, unless we have specific information, we wouldn’t be able to indiscriminately stop those driving,” Beickert said.

McCord urged residents to make themselves aware of what is and isn’t allowed under the stay-at-home order. He said the sheriff’s department received a call Monday about “two kids” playing in a yard, for example.

“Whoever that person was, please don’t do that again,” McCord said. “If you have a reason to call (non-emergency dispatch), call them.”

Pasquotank reports 3 more COVID-19 cases; Bertie now has 6, Hertford 4

Pasquotank County has three new cases of COVID-19, raising its total to five, the N.C. Department of Health and Humans Services reported on Wednesday.

Elsewhere in the region, Bertie County now has six cases of COVID-19 and Hertford has four, according to DHHS’ website. The counties were reporting four and two cases, respectively, on Monday.

Currituck and Perquimans, meanwhile, continue to have one case of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by coronavirus.

As of Tuesday morning, there are now 1,498 COVID-19 cases in 77 counties, according to DHHS. Also, two more people have died from the disease, raising the statewide death toll to six.

Nationally, the number of U.S. cases stood at 183,477 Tuesday evening, with 3,744 deaths.

Amy Underhill, a spokeswoman for Albemarle Regional Health Services, confirmed that the new cases of COVID-19 in Pasquotank, Hertford and Bertie are in isolation. Citing privacy restrictions, she declined to say whether they are in isolation at home or a hospital.

She said people with COVID-19 who have stayed home in isolation can stop at-home isolation provided they meet several conditions.

If they are not going to have a test to determine if they are still contagious, they may leave home after three things have happened:

• They have had no fever for at least 72 hours without the use medicine that reduces fevers;

• Other symptoms such as coughing or shortness of breath have improved; and

• At least seven days have passed since their symptoms first appeared.

If they plan to be tested to determine if they are still contagious, they can leave home after these three things have happened:

• They no longer have a fever without the use medicine that reduces fevers;

• Other symptoms such as coughing or shortness of breath have improved; and

• They have received two negative tests in a row that were 24 hours apart.

ARHS said it is following state health guidelines for determining others with whom the new persons testing positive for COVID-19 have had close contact. ARHS defined “close contacts” as those with whom the person testing positive has had direct contact, or been within 6 feet of, for at least 10 minutes while not wearing recommended personal protective equipment. Caregivers and household members of persons who test positive for the virus are considered close contacts, ARHS has said.

Meanwhile, the Dare County Division of Public Health is reporting the county’s second positive case of COVID-19. The first case, which is not connected to the second case, was reported on March 25, the health agency said.

“The individual has been self-isolating since being tested last week and continues to be monitored,” according to Dr. Sheila Davies, director of the Dare County Department of Health and Human Services said.

Davies said health officials believe the person acquired COVID-19 through direct contact while outside the area. The person’s spouse has also been tested but health officials have not yet received the test result.

Dare health officials are investigating the person’s activities and anyone deemed to have had direct contact with the person will be notified by the county’s health staff.

Dare noted that like the first reported case, the second will not show up as a case reported in Dare. That’s because, although the test was performed in Dare, the individual did not give a Dare address while being tested.

Mecklenburg County continues to have more cases than any other county: 420. Wake, with 186, and Durham, with 127, are the only other counties with more than 100 cases.

Elsewhere in eastern North Carolina, Northampton is reporting 30 cases, Pitt is reporting 27, Wilson has 13, Carteret is reporting 11, Beaufort has 4, and Washington has one.

DHHS reported that 157 people are currently hospitalized for COVID-19 in North Carolina. DHHS also said that for reporting hospitals, only 793 of 3,223 hospital intensive care unit beds in the state are currently empty. In addition, 7,024 of the state’s total 17,572 hospital beds, about 40 percent, are currently empty.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story listed only four cases of COVID-19 in Pasquotank County. 

Camden Schools mandate teleworking for employees

CAMDEN — The Camden County Schools is now requiring most employees to work from home as social distancing measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 become more entrenched.

Billie Berry, Camden Schools chief human resources officer, told the Camden Board of Education last week that senior staff had decided to require teleworking for all employees other than maintenance and food service staff on Mondays and Fridays.

But Superintendent Joe Ferrell announced on Tuesday that most employees would be required to work remotely Monday through Friday.

“As of today, schools are also closed on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays to all employees except principals, assistant principals, lead custodians, ADs (athletic directors), and one office staff member on a rotating basis,” Ferrell said Tuesday in an email message to employees.

He noted that athletic directors will only be working outside their schools. He also said he’ll be working with central office staff to determine which of them reports to work and which do not.

“Please know that even though we are saying some employees will be allowed to come to the buildings, we will support any employee who doesn’t feel comfortable coming in to stay at home,” Ferrell said.

While many employees already had been working remotely during the COVID-19 health crisis and the mandated closing of school buildings to students by Gov. Roy Cooper, some Camden school employees were continuing to come to their school building to work.

Ferrell told the school board that this included a relatively large number of employees.

Berry said one school had 45 employees at the building on both Monday and Tuesday of last week.

“There is some concern about that,” he said.

In response, Camden school senior staff proposed mandatory teleworking for employees on Mondays and Fridays. Board members said they backed that plan. They also authorized Ferrell to take additional action as needed to comply with the COVID-19 crisis and comply with state mandates and other guidance from authorities.

District officials noted that some maintenance workers have said they could get work done inside the buildings while maintaining social distancing if other employees were not there.

Ferrell said this week that principals have been working with their staff on electronic ways to collaborate, such as conference calls, Google hangouts, and ZOOM meetings.

The board also voted at the meeting last week to extend through May 15 a resolution granting Ferrell “greater flexibility to respond quickly and appropriately to the evolving crisis.”

The authority specifically includes entering into contracts without board approval as needed to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.