From Staff Reports
Despite requests from local residents to close UNC, concerned that students arriving at the university will cause outbreaks of COVID-19, the Orange County health director says she essentially can’t shut down the campus.
In a statement released Friday by the county health department, Quintana Stewart noted that “there is a high legal bar for [closing the campus] to survive a judicial challenge and there is also cost associated with shutting down the UNC campus.”
Closing the campus, Stewart concluded, “is not a realistic option.”
The statement came as students returned to Chapel Hill this week in advance of Monday’s first day of classes, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It was released a week after Stewart sent a letter to UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and other Carolina officials warning against a full reopening of the campus.
In that letter, Stewart urged the university to “at minimum begin the first five weeks of the semester with online instruction only.” Instead, the university “roadmap” for reopening calls for a mixture of in-person and remote learning.
After news of the letter became widespread, it sparked additional worries among some local residents who had already been wary of the return of more than 20,000 students to the community. “Recently I have been receiving emails from concerned community members about UNC reopening,” Stewart noted. “Many have suggested that I close campus and declare an imminent hazard.”
But since that is not possible, she added, “The Orange County Health Department will continue to work closely with the university to plan and prepare for any challenges the reopening brings.”
Meanwhile, Chapel Hill will see increased police patrols downtown and in student neighborhoods this weekend to encourage compliance with state and local health orders for the pandemic.
While the town every August tries to work with students, particularly those who live off-campus, and encourage them to be good neighbors, “this year, those efforts will have an increased emphasis on community safety during the pandemic,” according to a release from the Chapel Hill Police Department.
“We must have voluntary compliance with state and local health orders,” said Police Chief Chris Blue. “We understand that people are returning to our community from different parts of the state and country where expectations and standards may be different. We will lead with education efforts to ensure everyone is aware of our high standards for the health and safety of everyone in our community. And we will enforce those standards when necessary.”
Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger acknowledged that the return of students has heightened concern, especially following the posting of a video of a large number of students gathered one evening at a sorority house. None of the students appeared to be wearing masks nor did they maintain a safe distance from each other in the video, which quickly went viral.
“Actions that compromise community health and safety cannot be tolerated,” Hemminger said. “Orange County leaders, university representatives and local law enforcement met … to discuss a stronger community-wide approach to education and enforcement of state and local orders.”