Out Of Gas, Full Of News: The Week In Review From WFAE
If you've been slacking on social etiquette over a year of social distancing, now’s a good time to brush up. In the biggest step back toward “normal” since the coronavirus pandemic began, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week that fully vaccinated Americans can ditch their face masks in most situations.
It didn’t take long for North Carolina to embrace the new guidelines. On Friday, Gov. Roy Cooper lifted the state’s indoor mask mandate for most situations and fully eased capacity limits on businesses. The move came as more than half of North Carolina’s residents have gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine — and after 14 months of a pandemic that’s claimed more than 12,800 lives in the state.
And in South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster beat the CDC by a day, signing an order that banned schools and local governments from creating mask mandates. The state’s public schools chief accused McMaster of “inciting hysteria and sowing division.”
The wave of eased restrictions was cause for many to celebrate. Only one problem: It’s been kind of hard for people to actually go anywhere to celebrate. Last weekend’s cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline led to a rush on the pumps as people across the Southeast filled up on gas in a panic, despite ample supply. By Wednesday morning, more than 70% of gas stations in Charlotte were running dry as lines of cars snaked down streets across the metro region.
The whole situation put a squeeze on local businesses that rely on fuel. But the panic finally seems to be dying down, as regular operations have resumed for the pipeline, and normal service at gas stations could be restored before Monday morning.
In most cases, being without fuel for a few days winds up being an inconvenience. But imagine if you were stuck in a holding pattern for much, much longer — with your very future at stake. That’s the case for more than 30,000 migrants affected by the Trump administration’s “remain in Mexico” policy. The policy let U.S. immigration authorities send asylum-seekers to Mexico while waiting on a judge’s decision. Under the Biden administration, some of those cases have been transferred to immigration courts across the U.S., including at least 115 sent to Charlotte. But as WFAE’s Laura Brache reported this week, it can take months for asylum-seekers to learn their fates.
That wasn’t the only time the legal system was in the news this past week.
A look at a 2018 report from the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Coalition found that more than 250,000 residents had suspended driver’s licenses just because of unpaid court fines and fees — a disproportionate number of them Black. Mecklenburg County’s district attorney wants to reduce the number of suspended licenses and has dropped fees for more than 11,000 people.
And WFAE’s Steve Harrison took a deep dive into Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department policies, finding that arrests and citations in North Carolina’s largest city have plummeted over the last decade, even as the population swells. Even though arrests are down nationwide, Charlotte’s rate of decline is more than twice the U.S. average. Chief Johnny Jennings says he doesn’t plan for officers to go back to “no tolerance policing” anytime soon.
Let’s circle back to the idea of things getting back to “normal.” Safety precautions forced many government boards and councils to shift their meetings online — or at least to stream them so that members of the public could watch along without having to sit in a crowded room. A lot of governments were already streaming, but public meetings have been of particular interest to many lately as debates over pandemic policies have major impacts on residents’ daily lives.
In Union County this week, streaming practices led to the collision of tech company policies, free speech and the public record after YouTube deleted a school board meeting, saying it violated a rule on COVID-19 misinformation. YouTube eventually reversed the decision, but the North Carolina Open Government Coalition says the case should be a warning to public bodies that use private companies to stream and archive their meetings.
We’ll close with a reminder about one of Charlotte’s most persistent challenges: housing. There’s been a big effort in recent years to make more affordable housing available. But as WFAE’s David Boraks reported this week, turning the key to a new place is only part of the battle. People transitioning from homelessness, barely able to make rent payments, run into trouble furnishing their new living spaces. For the last 10 years, the group Beds for Kids has been stepping in to help make houses feel like homes.
Here’s how Charlotte City Council member Malcolm Graham, the program’s director, describes it:
“We turn that house, that apartment into a home where someone has the dignity of sleeping in a bed, the dignity of sitting at a kitchen table, having breakfast with their family, the dignity of having popcorn at night on the sofa watching a movie.”
ICYMI: MORE LOCAL NEWS
A man who was wrongfully imprisoned for a rape he did not commit has filed a lawsuit against the city of Concord and several Concord police officers. Attorneys for Ronnie Long say he deserves answers and accountability after spending 44 years in prison.
Thursday was the first full day that Charlotte area children ages 12 and up could receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday afternoon approved the shot for use in children ages 12 to 15.
County Manager Dena Diorio and Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell clashed Tuesday night over a proposal to withhold $56 million from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools over long-standing achievement gaps between white and minority students.
The development comes amid the state's ongoing investigation into the source of a foul, rotting smell that's been permeating homes in York and Lancaster counties and the surrounding area. The stench has been the subject of more than 17,000 complaints.
“Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition” is just the latest in “immersive” art experiences making their way to Charlotte and around the world. They're spectacular but might be a mixed blessing, says a Davidson College professor.
The pandemic likely increased the number of students who struggle with reading. North Carolina and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are looking for new, unified approaches to teaching. But many educators say no single program works for all kids.
As the pandemic deepens the academic challenges that face many students of color, a consensus is building that more effective reading instruction is a key to long-term recovery. We take a look at a CMS curriculum that combines the mechanics of literacy with lessons on race and power.
THE HIGH COST OF COVID-19
The child care industry was hit severely by the COVID-19 pandemic. One-third of child care jobs were lost in 2020. One in six jobs still have not returned to the field, causing a severe shortage in child care providers.
Meanwhile, the second round of PPP loans rolled out in January with changes to make the loans more accessible to small and minority-owned businesses. And there's a new fund looking to help small businesses in the South recover from the long-term economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
We’ve all experienced the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there have been challenges we’ve all faced. What helped you get back up? In the latest installment of Still Here, our series on resiliency, WFAE's Sarah Delia speaks to a Charlotte journalist — co-worker Gracyn Doctor — about loss, family and acceptance.
Anna Sale is the host of the podcast “Death, Sex & Money,” which time and again dares to talk about the most uncomfortable parts of being human — and by doing that, makes us feel a little less alone. She has a new book and talks about that — along with friendship, family and how growing up in the South helps define who we are — with Tommy Tomlinson in the latest SouthBound.
The House and Senate in South Carolina have approved a bill to add the firing squad to the state’s options for executing death row prisoners. For WFAE’s Tommy Tomlinson, in his On My Mind commentary, the discussion brings back a night he’d rather not remember.
BEST OF CHARLOTTE TALKS
As more people get vaccinated and the rates of hospitalizations from COVID-19 are declining, employers are contemplating a return to in-office work. Not everyone is happy about this. We look at all sides of this next step in our return to normal.