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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

'Maybe We Have To Close Some Stuff': Gaston County Among 10 NC Coronavirus 'Hot Spots'

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Claire Donnelly
Stefannie Roundtree stands in front of her Gastonia restaurant, Fannie Cakes.

It was the Thursday breakfast rush at Fannie Cakes Bakery in downtown Gastonia. But no servers were running around with plates of eggs or French toast. In fact, there were no customers inside. Tables were pushed to one side of the room and chairs were stacked in a sunny corner.

“We’ve been here for three years. We’re considered the best grits in downtown Gastonia,” said owner Stefannie Roundtree, taking a break from bagging to-go orders in the restaurant’s kitchen.

Fannie Cakes might not be what you picture when you think of a restaurant in a coronavirus hotspot. North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services this week classified Gaston County as one of 10 counties in a so-called “red zone,” the highest tier in a three-tier rating system the state created.

In a report released Tuesday, which state officials said will help target their COVID-19 response, Gaston was listed as having a case rate of nearly 457 per 100,000 people in the first two weeks of November. It had a test positivity rate of 8.7% and COVID-19 was having a “high impact” on hospitals.

Roundtree was surprised to hear this — she said she thought the county was doing a better job at controlling the virus. But she said some businesses have not been enforcing the statewide mask requirement.

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Claire Donnelly
A sign mandates mask use at Fannie Cakes in Gastonia.

“They have the sign up. But the people aren’t honoring it," she said. "And they’re still allowing them to come in."

Roundtree said she would like to see the health department “crack down.”

“A lot of small businesses, this is their only income. This is their livelihood," she said." And so if we have to be closed down because of somebody else’s negligence, that wouldn’t sit well with me at all.”

Fannie Cakes has not allowed dine-in customers since restaurants were ordered to close in March. It accepts phone, online and walk-in orders only. Roundtree and all of her employees wear masks and there’s a chalkboard sign at the door requiring all customers to wear them, too.

“We take it very seriously, you know, because we can’t afford to get sick,” Roundtree said.

About a block from Fannie Cakes, Andrea Pierre sat behind a plastic folding table at Tim’s Barber Shop wearing a black-and-white patterned mask.

“I’m just the person that takes the temperatures and wipes down the chairs after each customer — to try to keep it safe so corona don’t come up in here,” Pierre said.

Pierre was not shocked that Gaston County’s numbers were increasing and called it “kind of disappointing.” She said people must not be doing “what they need to do,” like wearing a mask and staying six feet apart.

Claire Donnelly
Customers of Tim's Barber Shop in Gastonia must first have their temperature taken.

“Maybe we have to put a stay-at-home order in again like we did. Go back to Phase 1," she said. "Maybe we have to close some stuff down in order to get it under control again.”

Tracy Philbeck, the chairman of Gaston County’s Board of Commissioners, called the DHHS report “a snapshot in time.”

“Let’s see a month from now, a couple weeks from now,” Philbeck said. “Let’s look at those numbers and you’re gonna see them fluctuate throughout the state. So I think the initial report doesn’t really say a lot.”

Philbeck said he’s glad to see Gov. Roy Cooper focusing on individual counties. Philbeck was highly critical of the statewide stay-at-home order back in March.

“The three W’s, I think, got lost and now we’re playing catch-up. Because I think there was a lot of mistrust sown during that time,” Philbeck said.

Gaston County did not make anyone at the health department available for an interview but the county released a statement on Tuesday.

“The County continues to work with its partners in the business community to encourage compliance with mask wearing and capacity restrictions for the safety of all residents,” it said, in part.

COVID-19 cases are increasingly being identified in North Carolina’s rural counties, according to a state health department report released last week.

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