COVID-19 Pandemic is Leading Issue Facing Local Governments

GOVERNMENT

By Ken Liebeskind

The most important issue facing local government administrations in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County during the past year and in the months ahead is certainly the Covid-19 pandemic, which required stay-at-home orders early in the pandemic and requires follow-up efforts in the coming months in response to increased infections from the Delta variant.

“Responding to the Covid-19 pandemic was by far the most critical issue we faced during the past year,” said Maurice Jones, Chapel Hill Town Manager. “The safety and welfare of our community was the top priority and the Town, working with the community and our regional partners, was able to provide our residents with housing assistance, access to food and personal protective equipment like masks to get us through some very difficult times.

“We moved quickly to protect the public and our employees by closing down facilities early, putting emergency orders in place, providing assistance to those in need and by looking for innovative ways to help our struggling businesses, like establishing takeout spaces for our restaurants and creating additional outdoor dining spaces along Franklin Street last summer by reducing travel lanes.”

David Andrews, Carrboro’s Town Manager, said, “Helping our community weather the Covid-19 pandemic was the biggest accomplishment of the past year. I am proud of our entire team’s response. As part of the Orange County Emergency Operations team, we worked closely with the local jurisdictions and UNC to assess and respond to community needs. Town staff traveled door-to-door to distribute masks, coordinated with the county to set up food distributions, activated a regional emergency housing assistance program, funded struggling local businesses and nonprofits and reworked our services from recreation programming to inspections/zoning to continue to provide a high level of service to our residents. I also transitioned Town staff to either work from home or work alternative schedules.”

Bonnie Hammersley, the County Manager for Orange County, said the county declared a state of emergency and issued a stay-at-home order early in the pandemic and provided loans to women- and minority-owned businesses. It also initiated a vaccine program at vaccine clinics and established a call center to provide information about the pandemic to residents that took over one thousand calls per day. In addition, the County is providing vaccination clinics in Chapel Hill at Southern Human Services Center Monday through Friday.

“It’s an unprecedented event and I’m proud of the work we did to slow the spread and keep the numbers down,” she said. “We’re still holding vaccination clinics five days a week in Hillsborough and sending out mobile units to the population that hasn’t been able to get to us.”

While the Covid-19 pandemic was the biggest issue for all three administrations during the past year, many others were on the table. “Fire protection, law enforcement, solid-waste collection and reviewing projects with our advisory boards and Town Council all continued during the pandemic,” Chapel Hill Town Manager Jones said. “In addition, we provided support for the Re-Imaging Community Safety Task Force and made important decisions concerning the future of short-term rental businesses in our community. The Town has also taken some important steps in re-invigorating our downtown through the investment in a new parking garage on East Rosemary Street that will support new office buildings that promise to attract hundreds of new jobs in the critical commercial district.”

“Carrboro moved forward with its first-ever comprehensive plan and continued to make progress on plans for the southern branch of the Orange County Library,” Town Manager David Andrews said. The new library branch will be part of The 203 Project, which will be built on the 203 South Greensboro Street site currently occupied by a parking lot and will also include the Orange County Skills Development Center, the Virtual Justice Center, WCOM Radio and the Teen Center.

Carrboro’s comprehensive planning process is its first in over 20 years and will address land-use regulations and decisions, which serve as the foundation for economic development and fiscal stability.

One of Orange County’s recent initiatives is to bring broadband access to rural residents. The county won a $500,000 grant to bring high-speed internet to residents in the townships of Cedar Grove, Little River, Bingham and Eno. County manager Bonnie Hammersley is working with Orange County Information Technologies Director Jim Northrup on the issue. “We’re all very excited to see these wireless internet pilots become successful,” Mr. Northrup said. “Inadequate rural broadband is a national problem.”

The Orange County Broadband Task Force was set up to address the problem and held its first meeting in March. “We want to get providers to move out to the rural areas to alleviate the problem as much as possible,” Ms. Hammersley said.

In the months ahead, all three administrations will continue working on Covid-19 issues. “We are moving forward with our ReVive plan to help our community recover from the pandemic,” Chapel Hill Town Manager Maurice Jones said. “This includes providing financial and marketing assistance for our small businesses while creating workforce development initiatives to provide residents with the skills they need to be competitive for well-paying jobs. We will continue our discussions with the Town Council about how to best spend the funds we received through the American Rescue Plan Act.”

Dave Schmidt, the Carrboro Fire Chief, is working with the Orange County Health Department on the Covid-19 crisis. “We are seeing an increase in cases with the Delta variant,” he said. North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reports that greater than 90% of recent infections have been the Delta variant and additionally over 90% of those infected are unvaccinated. We continue to push for vaccinations with signboards in town and social media blitzes.”

Mr. Schmidt also said the fire department is hosting a food distribution service in partnership with Orange County Social Services. “In conjunction with the food distribution, we provide face coverings for people who are waiting in line to receive food. Over time, disposable masks and cloth masks break down and become ineffective after so many washings or normal wear and tear and we typically hand out in excess of 300 adult face coverings and a lesser amount of children’s face coverings at each distribution.”

Carrboro Town Manager David Andrews said, “Pandemic recovery will take time. We will likely experience repercussions for years to come. The town has been part of a regional recovery-planning process that will help guide us through recovery. Carrboro stands to receive more than $6.5 million from the American Rescue Plan Act that will provide local businesses and essential employees with funding to help them recover from the effects of the pandemic. Pandemic recovery will continue to be on the agenda for some time. With the work on the recovery and resiliency plan, I believe we will be more prepared for a future disaster of this magnitude.”

Orange County Manager Bonnie Hammersley said food banks will be an important issue in the immediate future. “We purchased infrastructure food-cooling systems and are working with local dairy and other farmers, USDA reps and the Orange County Department of Agriculture to make sure food is available, which is a really collaborative effort that will continue for quite awhile,” she said.

When asked how the reaction to the pandemic could have been better, Chapel Hill’s Town Manager Maurice Jones said, “I believe we, as a nation, could have responded earlier. Considering what was taking place in Asia and parts of Europe in late 2019 and early 2020, our country could have used that time to better prepare for the pandemic and better inform our people of the impending storm.”

When asked whether we will be better prepared for a future pandemic, Mr. Jones said, “Absolutely.”

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