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Ken Sandridge, North Carolina district commander for Veterans of Foreign Wars, speaks at a Memorial Day ceremony at New Hollywood Cemetery, Monday morning. 

Stephanie Blanchard, a retired U.S. Army chief warrant officer and member of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6060, speaks at a Memorial Day ceremony at New Hollywood Cemetery in Elizabeth City, Monday morning. The event was hosted by the VFW but was not open to the public as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19.

As restaurants reopen, diners enjoying a meal out again

There may be fewer of them at any one time, but patrons are enjoying dine-in service at local restaurants again.

A check of restaurants in Elizabeth City Monday showed many serving dine-in customers now that they’re allowed to do so under Phase Two of Gov. Roy Cooper’s plan to ease COVID-19 restrictions in the state.

Kleanthis “Andy” Andreou, proprietor of Andy’s Pancake and Steak House, said he’s seen an uptick in traffic now that customers are no longer limited to just takeout.

“I’m very, very satisfied about the response,” Andreou said.

He said most of his customers are regulars who’ve been calling him frequently to find out when he would be opening back up for dine-in service. Cooper lifted the restriction on dine-in service Friday at 5 p.m.

Taking advantage of the opportunity to dine in at Andy’s Monday were Angela Jernigan and Traci Etheridge.

“It was good to be able to cook every day with your family,” Jernigan said. “But sometimes you don’t want to cook and you just want to sit down and have a nice meal with your friends that you haven’t seen in a long time.”

She said the only difference she noted now that Andy’s is back open for dine-in service is the number of tables: there are fewer of them in the dining area. That’s because restaurants serving dine-in customers under Phase Two of Cooper’s plan are required to operate at 50 percent capacity and keep customers at least six feet apart. To do that, Andy’s removed some of its tables for diners.

“It doesn’t really feel different,” Jernigan said, adding that she feels safe being in public spaces.

“People know the risk and it’s up to them how they handle it,” she said.

Etheridge said she was enjoying being at the restaurant.

“The seating arrangements are different but otherwise it’s fine,” she said. “It’s good to sit down and eat, and not to have to take it out and go back home.”

John and Anna Joyce McPherson were eating lunch at Andy’s after attending a Memorial Day observance earlier in the day. Prior to Cooper’s closing of dine-in service two months ago to stop the spread of the coronavirus, the couple would eat out three or four times a week, said Anna Joyce, who was seated in a wheelchair.

“It’s not as easy for me to cook,” she said. “I don’t have a handicapped kitchen.”

The couple ate out at El Parian Saturday night and the Mexican-themed restaurant seemed to be as full as it could be under the current rules.

“It’s nice to get out again,” John said. “I’m just glad to see so many of the places have survived.”

Trey and Bridget Colbert were also eating out at Andy’s Monday with their daughters, Tenley, 8, and Emory, 5.

“It’s nice to be able to go out to eat,” Trey said. “It’s especially nice to see the local restaurants open back up because they haven’t been able to open at all.”

“Normalcy,” added Bridget. “But it’s not exactly normal because I keep hand sanitizers right here in my purse.”

Trey said his family came in planning to order breakfast.

“But I think a couple of them might have changed to lunch since they saw the chicken and dumplings,” he said.

Over at The Circle II restaurant, retired District Court Judge Grafton Beaman was eating lunch with Tommy Tilley.

Beaman said he had enjoyed ordering takeout from home during the “complete lockdown” but was glad to be back dining at The Circle II again. He said he and Tilley are part of a group who eat breakfast at the restaurant four or five days a week.

Tilley said he had been impressed by how well restaurants have been following social distancing and other health guidelines as they reopen.

“I think they’re trying to do what’s right,” Tilley said. “About everywhere I have been people are (following guidelines). I’m really surprised how good the restaurants are doing.”

Both men said they hope locally owned restaurants make a strong financial comeback.

“I’m hoping that they’ll be able to survive at half capacity,” Beaman said.

“You cut your income in half — that’s a lot,” Tilley added.

Beaman said he believes Circle II proprietor Tommy Jones has earned a lot of goodwill in the community that will help him succeed over the long haul.

“He has gone out of his way to accommodate his customers,” Beaman said. “He appreciates his customers and we appreciate him.”

Buddy Williams also was enjoying lunch at The Circle.

“I am so glad to go back out to eat,” Williams said. “I have missed it.”

At Van’s Pizza, Jimmy Nash said he was glad to be able to eat at the restaurant again.

“We always came here a lot before,” Nash said. “I’m glad to see them opened back up.”

Nash said the food at Van’s is always good.

“And they know how to treat you,” he said. “That means a lot.”

Entertainment biz remain closed under Phase Two

While Phase Two of Gov. Roy Cooper’s COVID-19 restriction-easing plan allows the reopening of businesses like hair salons, barbershops and tattoo parlors, and permits restaurants to again offer dine-in service, nothing has changed for indoor entertainment businesses and large outdoor amusement centers.

Forced to close by Cooper’s executive order in March, bowling alleys, gyms, movie theaters and amusement parks are now not slated to reopen until Phase Three of the governor’s plan — expected to begin June 26 at the earliest.

And that’s only if the state’s health trends against COVID-19 continue in the right direction. Those trends include decreases in the number of people visiting hospitals or clinics with virus symptoms, the percentage of COVID-19 tests over a 14-day period, the number of hospitalizations for the virus, and the number of lab-confirmed cases.

One of several local businesses still closed under Phase Two of the state’s COVID-19 reopening plan is the Albemarle Lanes bowling center.

According to Albemarle Lanes manager Stephen Marshall, the bowling alley was closed to customers around March 20. At the time it closed, Albemarle Lanes was in the middle of multiple bowling seasons, Marshall said.

For that and other reasons, the bowling center’s customers are eager for Albemarle Lanes to reopen. When it does reopen, he expects the bowling alley will be subject to limited capacity measures and social distancing requirements.

Another local business still closed under Phase Two, is RCE Theaters in Elizabeth City. When the movie theater closed in March, it began allowing customers to purchase takeout snacks and other food items outside the theater from 4-6 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

On April 7, the theater established a GoFundMe account seeking donations.

“We don’t typically ask for help, but due to our current situation, we have several theater bills and loans that are stacking up at this time,” the theater posted on the GoFundMe web page. “We are continuing to pay our salaried staff and are trying hard to get the SBA (Small Business Adminstration) loan that is available.”

According to the GoFundMe page, RCE Theaters has raised $1,390 since April 7.

Also still closed are local gyms and fitness centers, including Elizabeth City’s senior center.

In an emailed response to The Daily Advance last week, City Manager Rich Olson said the center will remain closed for now.

“The clientele of the senior citizen center are those individuals which have the highest risk factors,” Olson said, referring to the fact public health officials consider senior citizens and those with underlying health conditions most at risk of experiencing severe health consequences, including death, if they contract COVID-19.

Also still closed during Phase Two are amusement parks like the H2OBX Waterpark in Powells Point. Last week, the waterpark said it doesn’t plan to open for the summer season until June 20.

“H2OBX Waterpark looks forward to welcoming all our guests to the park this summer,” a statement on park’s website said. “We are following the guidance provided by local, state, and federal officials regarding COVID-19 as we prepare for the upcoming season. As always, ensuring the safety of our staff and guests is a top priority. The current situation and mandated restrictions have posed some challenges to our normal preseason preparation, including staff training.”

Consultant: City needs $37M in water-sewer fixes

Elizabeth City needs to spend around $37 million over the next 10 years to improve the city’s aging sewer and water systems. And to do it will require significant increases to the city’s current water and sewer rates.

That is what Raftelis consultant Keith Readling told City Council last week during discussion of the city’s proposed $69 million 2020-21 budget. The $37 million estimate is based on Raftelis’ study of the city’s water and sewer systems over a five-month period.

To help fund those needs, City Manager Rich Olson is proposing a 50-percent increase in sewer rates next fiscal year. Sewer rates would then go up 3 percent annually for the next eight years and then 9 percent in 2028-29.

Olson is also proposing a 2-percent hike in water rates the next nine years and a 9-percent increase in 2028-29.

If the hikes are approved, Elizabeth City would have the highest water and sewer rates among six other Tier 1 municipalities used as a comparison in Raftelis’ study. The increases would also make the city’s monthly rates higher than in Chesapeake, Virginia ($91.13) but lower than in Norfolk, Va. ($104.41).

Even before Readling presented the study’s findings, Fourth Ward Councilor Johnnie Walton asked that the 50-percent hike in sewer rates be removed from the budget.

“I think 50 percent is too much,” Walton said. “We need to make this budget as friendly as possible. People can’t even pay their bills now. I think it is too much to put out there right now.’’

Walton’s motion was defeated on a 4-2 vote, with First Ward councilors Billy Caudle and Jeannie Young, 2nd Ward Councilor Chris Ruffieux and Third Ward Councilor Kem Spence voting against it. Only Walton and Third Ward Councilor Michael Brooks voted to remove the item.

Second Ward Council Gabriel Adkins and Fourth Ward Councilor Darius Horton did not attend last week’s council meeting.

During his presentation, Readling said the average monthly city water and sewer bill — which includes both residential and commercial customers — is for 5,000 gallons of water and totals $77.80 — $48.96 for water service and $28.84 for sewer. If council agrees to the proposed increases, those monthly rates would jump a combined $15.39 a month to $93.19 — $49.93 for water service and $43.26 for sewer.

Readling noted that the typical residential consumer uses 3,500 gallons of water a month and that their bill currently runs about $62. With the increases, their bill would rise $13 a month to $75 monthly, he said.

About half of the $37 million in proposed capital upgrades would go toward improving performance of city sewer lines. Currently, a large amount of rainwater is getting into the wastewater system. Because that rainwater is then treated as sewage, the city’s wastewater plant’s capacity is often tested during periods of large rainfall.

Left unchanged, a wastewater plant that’s often at its capacity because of rainwater could have serious consequences for the city’s future growth, Readling suggested.

“If we don’t do that (upgrade sewer lines) we will not be able to issue any new connections to the sewer system because we will be out of compliance with our wastewater discharge permit,” he told councilors. “You will face a (development) moratorium.”

Readling said construction costs are higher in Elizabeth City and that makes improvements more expensive.

“It’s expensive to do work underground because you have a high water table and you have to pump down the water table to dig trenches,” Readling said. “It’s hard to get competitive bids’’ because of that.

Olson has said previously that street improvements in the city can’t be made until the water and sewer lines underlying the roads are improved.

Caudle said he knows that the sewer system needs “major work.” However, he wants to know what the specific “plan” is for the next 10 years and where improvements will be made.

“We are looking for a story because our constituents, too, don’t understand Exhibit A and Exhibit C,” Caudle said. “They (constituents) want to know, ‘OK, we are going to do Halstead (Boulevard), we are going to do Ehringhaus (Street), we are going to do this.’”

Public Utilities Director Amanda Boone said individual sewer lines that will need to be replaced haven’t been identified yet. That’s because there are catastrophic failures in sewer lines on “just about a daily basis.”

The city received a grant to study the sewer system. That study will determine where the highest percentage of rainwater is entering the wastewater system.

“My staff in the field has provided me a list of known sewer issues and known water issues throughout the city,” Boone said. “We (currently) don’t have the funds to address the ones we know of. We will use that (study) along with the stuff we already know to determine which sewer lines get done first.’’

Boone also said the water and sewer system upgrades are not just limited to line replacement.

Archuleta removes misleading post on school reopenings

A member of the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Board of Education has taken down a social media post that he says misrepresented Centers for Disease Control guidance on the reopening of schools.

George Archuleta also apologized Monday for sharing the meme without thoroughly vetting it first.

Archuleta explained in an interview that he regretted spreading inaccurate information, even temporarily, and hopes no one was misled by what he shared.

The viral meme sprang up after it appeared the CDC had developed guidelines for state and local officials to consider when reopening school buildings in the fall. The guidelines cover such topics such as social distancing, encouraging the use of face coverings, and procedures for cleaning and sanitizing classrooms and other spaces.

The meme in Archuleta’s initial post expressed concern that the CDC’s strictures could make the reopening of schools practically impossible.

But when Archuleta learned that the CDC had not issued formal rules for reopening schools and that the actual decisions would be made by individual states, he took down the meme and posted an apology.

Archuleta’s eagerness to correct the record and avoid spreading misinformation drew expressions of appreciation from some in the community, including fellow school board member Virginia Houston.

The information in the meme Archuleta shared was not entirely inaccurate as much as it was potentially misleading, according to a review conducted by USA Today.

For instance, guidance about face coverings — which the CDC is recommending as schools reopen but also acknowledges may not be feasible for all students all the time — was paraphrased to imply all students over age 2 would be required to wear masks.

Archuleta said he doesn’t want anyone to think the guidelines have already been issued as formal rules, and that’s one reason he wanted to correct the information on his Facebook page.

“I didn’t research it like I should have,” Archuleta said of the meme. “As good leadership you should be able to own the wrongs as much as you own the rights.”

Archuleta said the controversy has arisen amid concerns about how schools have been handling the changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. He said local school administrators are taking some heat online over how graduations are being handled, for instance, but he wants everyone to understand administrators are trying to do the best they can under difficult conditions.