Health Officials: No COVID-19 Case Spread Linked to Voting
Two weeks after the polls closed in North Carolina and nearly 4 million people voted in person during the COVID-19 pandemic, state health officials have some good news.
“We are not aware of any clusters tied to voting sites in NC,” said Amy Adams Ellis, spokeswoman for the NC Department of Health and Human Services.
Considering the state of COVID-19 in North Carolina and the United States, that counts as a significant achievement.
As the general election approached, state and federal officials warned about the possible public health nightmare that could unfold with in-person voting during a pandemic.
The DHHS website includes a page that gives election officials guidelines to prevent the virus from spreading. Health officials wrote, “any scenario in which many people gather together poses a risk for COVID-19 transmission.”
When early voting started, North Carolina was looking at a bleak picture of COVID-19. On Oct. 15, state health officials reported 2,532 cases. At the time, that was the highest single-day total the state had seen.
Through Election Day, cases ranged from 2,684 to 2,349, according to the COVID-19 NC dashboard.
Elections officials were required to wear masks, but voters were not. The right to vote could not be denied for refusing to wear a mask.
County election officials say with all of that information in mind, reducing the risk and preventing a spread of the coronavirus was at the center of their election planning.
“The first thing we did was to look for alternate early voting sites that were larger than the sites we had previously used so that both our stations for voting and voting booths could be spread out,” Cabarrus County Elections Director Carol Soles said.
Election officials say three of the four early voting places in Cabarrus County — Northern Tool Plaza, Cabarrus Arena & Events Center, and Embassy Suites — all were larger than the sites they replaced.
Likewise, Mecklenburg County had early voting sites at Bank of America Stadium, Spectrum Center and Bojangles Coliseum to allow for social distancing in some of the largest buildings available. Elections Director Michael Dickerson said “it was the goal of our office to maintain the safety of our workers and the safety of the voters throughout the entire process.”
Health and elections officials in Mecklenburg, Gaston, Iredell, Cabarrus, Union, and Anson counties say no election-related COVID-19 cases have been reported to them.
The N.C. Department of Emergency Management sent masks, face shields, hand sanitizer, wipes and other cleaning supplies to all local election offices.
In Mecklenburg County, 432,928 people voted in person during early voting and on Election Day. Dickerson said his office took extra steps to prevent a spread.
“We used sneeze guards and sanitizing stations and even had one person at each site responsible for cleaning touchpoints,” Dickerson said. “We followed the CDC guidelines for safe voting in the pandemic. Obviously, we observed the 3 'W’s' – wait six feet, wear a mask, and wash your hands. When possible we queued voters outside and socially distanced voters inside to minimize contact.”
Soles says she relied on state election and health officials for guidance while her office prepared for the elections. In addition to the personal protective equipment (PPE) that the state sent, Soles said county officials also bought plexiglass dividers for voting stations.
“My hope was to not only have workers and voters to be safe, but for them to feel comfortable in both working and voting during the election period,” Soles said.
Guarding against the virus spread wasn’t a cheap endeavor.
Even with state-supplied PPE, Gaston County Elections Director Adam Ragan says his office spent thousands of dollars to make sure voters and workers were safe.
“In all, the county paid around $60,000 for one-stop and Election Day shields, social distancing markers, and other protective supplies,” Ragan said.
Election staff in Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, Iredell, Anson, and Union counties say they’re still adding up how much money they spent to safeguard against the virus. They’re expecting the federal government to reimburse all costs with the CARES Act.
Brett Vines, spokesperson for Union County Board of Election said his office spent money on equipment and additional workers.
“We hired workers to clean booths at every voter-used booth,” Vines said. “We had precautionary measures in place so the voters and workers would have a safe environment to work and vote.”
It wasn't cheap in Iredell County, either.
“We spent a lot on this 2020 election,” said Becky Galliher, director of elections in Iredell County. “Not sure how much, but we were given a lot of grant funding.”