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Theater: Congress must pass bill to aid shuttered biz

RCE Theaters of Elizabeth City is no different from other businesses that have suffered significant financial losses because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But unlike other businesses like restaurants and barbershops that have been allowed to reopen in North Carolina, movie theaters still remain closed.

And based on Gov. Roy Cooper’s decision Wednesday to keep the state paused in Phase 2 of its reopening for at least five more weeks, RCE Theaters won’t be showing any movies anytime soon.

That’s why RCE’s owners, Janelle and Blaine Given, are asking residents to join a national campaign that seeks federal relief money for theaters and other small businesses that still remain closed.

The #SaveYourCinema campaign is sponsored by the National Association of Theatre Owners, of which RCE is a member. The campaign asks supporters to sign an online pre-written letter addressed to Congress. The letter seeks lawmakers’ support of the RESTART Act, a proposed federal plan designed to assist small businesses for the remainder of 2020.

“As a moviegoer in your community, I am writing to ask you to save our local movie theaters,” the letter begins. “Without your help, we could lose our beloved cinemas and a cherished American pastime.

“I urge you to support the RESTART Act (S. 3814/H.R. 7481), and to please press Treasury and the Federal Reserve to implement more relief measures for cinemas of all sizes.”

More than 200,000 people already have signed the letter, according to a news release from the theater owners association. Locally, at RCE Theater’s Facebook page, nearly 10 people have indicated they signed the letter.

“It takes less than a minute to submit and will help not only all movie theaters that were forced to close, but other small businesses through the RESTART Act,” Janelle Given said. “This act will allow small businesses to apply for a loan to help support their continued expenses.”

The RESTART Act was introduced in May by U.S. Sens. Michael Bennett, D-Colorado, and Todd Young, R-Indiana. RESTART stands for Reviving the Economy Sustainably Toward A Recovery in Twenty-twenty Act.

The bill establishes a new loan program that would provide funding to cover six months of payroll and other business expenses for businesses with fewer than 5,000 employees. It also would extend the loan forgiveness period for paycheck protection program loan recipients, among other actions.

In North Carolina, movie theaters, gyms, bars, bowling alleys and other businesses providing entertainment have been closed since March. The mandatory closings are part of Cooper’s phased plan to reopen the state’s economy.

On Wednesday, those businesses took another hit when Cooper announced he was again extending Phase 2 of his Safer at Home plan by another five weeks, or until Sept. 11. The announcement marked the second time Cooper has extended Phase 2. The current extension was set to expire on Friday.

“It is extremely unfortunate that the governor has decided to extend Phase 2 for any gym, bar, bowling alley, movie theater or entertainment venue,” said Given, when contacted Wednesday. “It is extremely hard to understand or to even swallow at this time. We feel like all businesses deserve the right to open, if they adhere to certain safety guidelines, which we feel we have in place.”

Cooper’s announcement Wednesday puts even more emphasis on why residents should support the #SaveYourCinema campaign, according to Given.

“The RESTART Act is not only necessary, but vital at this time,” she said.

RCE Theaters opened in the former Gateway Cinemas in February 2018. The company owns and operates a second cinema in Roanoke Rapids.

Given said because of COVID-19 RCE Theaters’ total estimated loss of revenue, including both cinemas, is around $700,000.

“I would guesstimate our Elizabeth City losses would be around $450,000; numbers obviously depend on the excitement of the product that is out,” she said, referring to fan popularity of a particular movie.

Cooper ordering movie theaters to close in March was particularly tough for RCE Theaters. Just a few weeks before on Feb. 15, the Elizabeth City theater opened its new $1 million expansion, which includes two new auditoriums, Given explained.

“So not only do we have our regular expenses, but construction and equipment loans that need to be paid,” she said. “These loans were deferred for 90 days, but we are past that now and our funds are dwindling away.”

With some creativity, RCE Theaters has managed to remain open through the pandemic. The company hasn’t been able to show movies indoors, but has come up with COVID-19-safe ways to generate revenue and to keep workers employed.

“Things have been especially tight and we have tried to be innovative and creative throughout this pandemic,” Given said. “We have done everything from starting an online store so we could sell concessions curbside, selling T-shirts, coupon books, gift cards, movie loyalty cards, to designing an all new pop-up cinema that has already served several local churches and families in the area. We plan to begin implementing outdoor movies soon at RCE Theaters.”

In July, RCE Theaters held a drive-in movie night in the parking lot of the Shoppes at Tanglewood shopping center. In June, the theater began hosting family game night on Monday evening, which included a life-sized chess game set up outside at the main entrance.

RCE stands for Red Carpet Entertainment. The local company is not affiliated with RC Theaters, owners of the new Albemarle 8 theater complex, which has been delayed in opening this summer because of COVID-19.

According to the legislation tracking website congress.gov, the most recent action on the RESTART Act was June 3 when the bill was heard in committee.

To read the #SaveYourCinema letter, visit the website saveyourcinema.com.

Back to school: Private schools plan in-person classes

While Gov. Roy Cooper’s plan for reopening North Carolina schools rules out in-person-only instruction for public schools, it doesn’t apply to private schools.

As a result, private schools across the state are choosing to reopen the school year with in-person instruction.

Albemarle School in Elizabeth City has plans in place to hold face-to-face classes this fall while complying with COVID-19 public health guidelines.

Melvin Hawkins, headmaster at Albemarle School, said the school’s board of directors voted to reopen Aug. 17 with face-to-face learning for students.

The first three days, Aug. 17-20, will be a phase-in, with a third of the students in each grade coming in to learn about new procedures and regulations such as using hand sanitizer and wearing masks. Those days will be half days.

All students will come to school beginning Aug. 20, Hawkins said.

Throughout each school day all students will be wearing masks, Hawkins said. “It will be kindergarten and up,” he added.

Hawkins explained that parents have received advance information about the requirement for students to wear masks and about other changes such as traffic flow through the building.

The school will be screening all students and staff as they arrive each day, using temperature checks and screening questions.

Students will notice other changes at the school. They will not be able to hang out in the gym before school starts, for example. Instead, they will have to go directly to their classroom and remain there, Hawkins said.

Hawkins said the school’s relatively small class sizes will help with the implementation of social distancing. The board has already capped class sizes at 18 and all classes have from 10-17 students each.

Most classes have 13-14 students. Hawkins said those class sizes will work well for social distancing.

Many teachers have removed from their classroom everything except student desks and the teacher desk in order to help with social distancing.

“They have created as much space as is possible,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins said the school will be staying in touch with Albemarle Regional Health Services officials for the latest health safety advice as the semester progresses.

New Life Academy, another area private school, announced on its website that it plans to reopen on its original start date of Sept. 8. However, it will not offer aftercare this school year in order to keep students safe in classrooms.

Victory Christian School also has announced that it, too, will be offering in-person instruction this fall.

Citing unfavorable COVID-19 trends, Cooper announced last week that K-12 public schools could reopen under officials referred to as “Plan B.” The option offers a hybrid of online and in-person instruction. It requires “moderate social distancing” such as limiting how many students can be in school. It also requires all students and school staff to wear masks while at school.

Cooper also allowed school districts to reopen under what officials refer to as “Plan C,” which is remote-only instruction. Most area school districts plan to open with remote-only instruction for at least the first nine weeks of the school year before transitioning to Plan B.

Chowan fair canceled due to virus

EDENTON — The oldest and most honored fair in the Albemarle will not be held this fall, a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Chowan County Regional Fair Board of Directors announced Thursday it had canceled the 74th annual Chowan County Regional Fair scheduled for Sept. 29 through Oct. 3.

“This decision was made after many discussions and much deliberation,” the board said in a press release. “With safety as a paramount factor and the overwhelming challenges to achieve the required standards, the decision to cancel is the only logical choice.”

The fair’s directors noted the Chowan County Regional Fair has been a mainstay “without interruption since the boys returned home” from World War II, drawing visitors from across northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia.

The Chowan County Regional Fair, held at the Legion Post 40 fairgrounds in Edenton, has also become one of the top award winning fairs in the state, the board said.

The board’s press release also described the fair as one of the region’s largest community service programs, noting its volunteers “work diligently year-round” to produce the event.

The fair’s board said all commitments by the fair’s advertisers and vendors will be honored at the 75th annual event next year. That event is scheduled for Sept. 28 through Oct. 2, 2021.

The press release said any questions about the fair should be directed to the board at 252-482-4057 or info@chowanfair.com.

County to allow water customers to make catch-up payments

Pasquotank Board of Commissioners voted earlier this week to offer a water utility payment plan for residential customers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic started in March, Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order, which he later extended, that prohibited utility departments from disconnecting a customer’s account because of nonpayment. The order also banned utilities from imposing late fees.

Cooper’s Executive Order 124 was an effort to help utility customers across the state facing financial hardships because of the pandemic. However, it expired on July 29.

“We had four months there where customers didn’t have to pay their bill,” said County Water Superintendent David Smithson.

The Pasquotank water system resumed its normal disconnection and late fee policies at the end of July. But the county is offering customers six months to pay any delinquent amounts that were incurred from March 31 through July 29. Agreements must be signed by Aug. 28.

Smithson told commissioners the water department’s delinquent rate was about average while Cooper’s executive order was in effect.

“Part of the governor’s response is that we have to give them (customers) time to repay it (delinquent amounts),” Smithson said. “Recognizing the financial hardship many now face, and in compliance with Executive Order 124, we are offering the payment plan to our residential customers who are unable to pay their current account balance in full. The money is still due, and they will pay it back.’’

The agreement customers sign states they have to pay a minimum of one-sixth of the delinquent account balance, as well as their current water bill in full.

The Pasquotank Water Department has four billing cycles in a month and 31 residential payment agreements were just sent out to delinquent customers in the first cycle.

Other payment agreements, most likely around 100 total, will go out to delinquent customers in each of the remaining three billing cycles.

Camden library financing advances

CAMDEN — Camden officials have given the initial green light to the county’s plan to borrow $3.6 million to build a new library.

At its regular meeting earlier this week, the Camden Board of Commissioners adopted a “pending resolution” for financing the library project. They’re scheduled to vote at their Sept. 8 meeting to give the resolution final approval.

The county leases space for the current library. However, the property owner has advised officials the lease will not be renewed.

Rather than seek other leased space, county officials have proposed building a new library. It’s envisioned as part of a larger complex on a county-owned site that would also include a community center and administrative offices. Camden owns land across N.C. Highway 343 from the Camden County Historic Courthouse that it plans to use for the complex.

The county has been working with Boomerang Design to develop a plan for a one-story, 11,700-square-foot building that would include a library, community meeting room, commissioner and committee boardroom, and small kitchen.

The county plans for any equipment and furnishings in the current library that are usable, including current shelving, to be moved into the new facility to help keep costs down.

County officials have cited the urgency of building a new library and the economic uncertainty stemming from the coronavirus public health crisis as reasons for prioritizing the library building ahead of the rest of the project.

County and school officials also plan to put a $33 million bond referendum on the general election ballot in November, asking voters to authorize the borrowing needed to construct a new high school.

The pending resolution adopted Monday supports an installment financing agreement not to exceed $3.6 million to build and equip the library building.

The resolution states the county has an urgent need to proceed with the project and does not have time to seek general obligation bond financing through a bond referendum.

The resolution says “the necessity of such project dictates that the project be financed by a method that assures the project will be constructed in an expedient manner.”

The resolution also indicates commissioners have determined the cost of installment financing is reasonably comparable to other available methods of financing.

Any increase in taxes necessary repay the money borrowed will not be excessive, according to the resolution.

No one spoke at the public hearing Monday on the resolution.