Pandemic Recovery: Public Input Needed


By Dylan Phillips

How will Orange County recover from the COVID-19 pandemic?

The Orange County Long-Term Recovery Group is offering its suggestions virtually this Friday and Saturday, and will allow the public to have a say in the plan moving forward.

The executive summary of the draft of the Long-Term Recovery and Transformation Plan “provides the framework for how Orange County will direct its recovery … in a way that is equitable and meets the needs of the whole community.” Public comment can be made during the virtual meetings Friday and Saturday. Comment also can be submitted on the Moving Orange County Forward website.

“We’re using the approach of the whole community. COVID affected not just government, not just public sector and not just private, it affected all of us,” said Kirby Saunders, a member of the LTRG project management team and director of emergency services for Orange County. “So, we’re trying to really spearhead this effort in the entire community to look at the draft of the plan, to weigh in on both the impacts and the strategies as well as goals to make sure we, as a collective, are addressing what the greatest needs are in the community as we move forward.”

Aside from soliciting responses from the community at large, Saunders said there has been a particular focus on gathering feedback from communities of color. Assessing the impact of the pandemic on Orange County has been a “lengthy process,” Saunders said. The next step was to ask residents what are the county’s greatest needs and how should they be addressed.

The plan lists 19 strategies for dealing with the varied impacts the pandemic has had. At this point in the plan, Saunders said the group needs more feedback on which strategies to emphasize for the county’s recovery and transformation.

The four key points of the plan revolve around public health, the local economy, housing and social services. These areas have been the most impacted by the pandemic and should be the priorities, the group determined.  

The group found that local black and Latino residents have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and that there is a high rate of infection among the county’s younger population. Also, it determined that hospital bed availability has decreased from 40-50 percent in April to a current 10 percent.

The plan also notes that the pandemic has exposed significant problems in the local economy as the number of educational and healthcare workers in the area is likely masking the true unemployment numbers. Meanwhile, the lack of students on the UNC campus has led to a stark loss in revenue for local businesses.

According to the group, the pandemic also has created a local housing crisis, and that the county may see a spike in evictions once the CARES Act protections expire Jan. 31.

Finally, the plan notes that homelessness is likely on the rise because of the pandemic and that a reduction in public transportation has disproportionately affected low-wage workers.

The plan also addresses the lack of adequate internet access in the county’s rural areas, food insecurity, natural and cultural resources and community planning.

“Where we are right now is the development of the plan,” Saunders said. “What we’ll have to link it to, and that’s why the word long-term is so important, will be long-term actionable items. In order to execute on these strategies, it’s really going to take the same diversity that has built the plan, the same diverse thinking to think about how we fund these initiatives, where can support commissions that are already underway and how can we elevate them to the top or how can we get more funding.”

Saunders also emphasized that results won’t be visible right away. The plan, he said, is just as much about transformation as it is about recovery.

“While we’re also recovering we want to build resiliency for the future as well, so that our community has a better ability to withstand and recover from any future disruptions, whether it be another public health emergency or a natural disaster or any other means that would impact our community,” Saunders said.

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