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Josh Bergeron: Health must be reopening task force’s first priority

Ready or not, Rowan County is ready to “reopen” for business.

And the “reopening” has some major cheerleaders in the form of the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce, Tourism Development Authority, Economic Development Commission, County Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds and members of a newly formed task force focused on ensuring what happens next occurs within the bounds of health rules and recommendations.

“We need to get back to work. We have to get back to work,” said Edds during an interview with the Post and task force members last week.

Particularly for agencies like the Chamber of Commerce and officials like Edds, the previous few years have been a blessing. Often these opinion pages and news articles published by the Post have noted that growth here hasn’t been as sharp as neighboring areas, but all signs pointed to a spike produced by ongoing construction projects like I-85’s widening. Three months ago, there was unrestrained enthusiasm about the future.

There is still optimism because projects like Chewy.com’s fulfillment center are pushing ahead, and EDC President Rod Crider says interest among businesses in moving to Rowan remains strong. There are other post-COVID-19 trends that may make Rowan County a more attractive place to locate, too, including that it’s not a crowded metro area where growth rates of the coronavirus have been steeper.

But the backbone of the community is existing small businesses. Most of them are worrying about revenue trends now and in the future. So, it makes sense that there’s a loud voice advocating for reopening. And Edds and the task force are right: Rowan County needs to get back to work. It can’t do so at the expense of public health.

Asked about that, Edds had a well-thought-out answer.

“When we went into this, we only had models, and now we have data. The data is heartbreaking, but the data is very clear and that is that we have lost 26 wonderful people … 25 of those 26 have been in retirement communities,” he said during an interview that occurred before the county added a 27th death on Friday from the Citadel nursing home.

But the health department is working on that, he said. The department has created a position specifically to work with nursing homes on COVID-19 outbreaks.

Edds said that people have lately begun to recover at sharper rates from COVID-19, that 46 people during the course of the outbreak have been hospitalized with an average age was 66.

That data, he said, is proof that Rowan County can return to work if it’s done in a smart way.

Have we flattened the curve? The answer is, mostly, “yes.”

It all depends on how you view data, which has remained imperfect throughout the outbreak, in part, because testing has not been as widespread as it should be.

Cases here rose at a faster average rate in the previous two weeks than the 14 days that came before. And the Rowan County Health Department has made clear that spread is occurring more frequently of late in the community at large (as opposed to congregate living facilities).

But the number of active cases is on the decline after reaching a peak of 265 one week ago. Health care facilities have remained well under capacity during the outbreak. Any plans to use other facilities as emergency shelters have remained unlikely possibilities so far.

An honest assessment of local data would note that cases are still increasing at a slow, steady pace and people in continue to die from COVID-19 in Rowan County nursing homes. Even with that assessment, there’s a large-enough group of people who say that’s OK to move toward “reopening” the state if precautions are followed, but there also are many uncomfortable considerations involved in that judgment call, including that nursing homes continue to be “hot spots” for cases and deaths.

Edds and task force chair Pete Teague collaborated in back-to-back statements to form an idea worth repeating as many times as people will listen: the community needs to see that there is a clear, logical plan to have confidence to get back to life preceding the pandemic; for customers to be confident, though, businesses need to be confident they can reopen safely.

That’s where the task force comes in. It must be the chief cheerleader for health-conscious business practices and employees to remind customers when they are not following instructions. It can make things easier for businesses through kits with signs and materials that Tourism Development Authority CEO James Meacham said will be distributed.

People will be inconvenienced. Businesses that require temperature checks or mask-wearing may turn some away at the door. If we’re moving forward with reopening, though, inconvenience will be necessary.

There’s also a role in a health-focused “reopening” for the Rowan County Board of Commissioners and other elected bodies. In what’s going to be a unique budget year, there must be room for increased public health funding. Elected officials should look to people like Rowan County Public Health Director Nina Oliver for recommendations about the best investments of tax dollars in new priorities.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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