Mecklenburg County is making plans to assemble a panel of business leaders and government officials to assess how the economy can reopen amid the uncertainty surrounding the spread of COVID-19.
The Charlotte Ledger spoke Friday with two people familiar with the group being formed, which they say they have discussed with County Manager Dena Diorio this week.
“The focus is how do you balance reopening things while also keeping people safe?” said Huntersville Town Manager Anthony Roberts, who said he will serve on the committee as the North Mecklenburg County representative. “The group will be looking to determine how we can open businesses back up.”
The formation of the group could be an important first step toward easing some of the restrictions the county put in place three weeks ago with its stay-at-home order. The panel could help determine what types of businesses in the county could reopen, how soon and under what circumstances. The state and federal government this week laid out guidelines exploring similar questions.
It could also mark a change in focus for the county, which until now has mainly pleaded with residents to stay home for their own safety and those of others.
Roberts said he doesn’t know of any official name for the group or who else would be asked to serve on it. “We just started talking seriously about it (Thursday),” he said.
Asked Friday afternoon about the business panel, county spokesman Danny Diehl wrote in a text to The Ledger: “Don’t have the details yet. We will let you know.”
This week, the county extended its “stay at home” order through April 29 to coincide with a similar statewide order. People have been directed to stay home except to head to essential jobs or to participate in approved activities such as shopping for groceries, exercising or helping a family member. The order bans gatherings of more than 10 people and directs everyone to stay at least six feet apart from others.
Many businesses remain open in industries such as construction, health care and manufacturing, and many office workers are working from home. But an estimated half of retailers are closed, except for essential businesses such as grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations and takeout restaurants.
Gov. Roy Cooper said Wednesday that he would like to begin reopening businesses when there is adequate testing and sufficient data that indicates doing so is safe. He didn’t provide a timeline. It’s possible Mecklenburg could reopen on a slower schedule than elsewhere in the state, since it has double the number of confirmed cases compared with the second-highest county, Wake County.
Commissioners this week indicated they would favor a longer “stay at home” order beyond April 29, but no decision has been made on that. County health officials this week shared a forecast that coronavirus cases will peak in Mecklenburg in June and strain hospital resources at that time, though other models seem to indicate the peak will be earlier.
Matthews Mayor John Higdon said Matthews Town Manager Hazen Blodgett will serve on the business panel, which he described as a “business roundtable.” Higdon said people and businesses in Matthews have been patient and complying with the “stay at home” order but that it is time to think about how businesses can eventually reopen.
“One thing we want to discuss is how can we do a safe soft launch. As (federal adviser) Dr. (Anthony) Fauci says, don’t flip a switch and say things are normal. How can we slowly open businesses deemed nonessential, and how can we open them in a safe manner?” Higdon said.
Higdon pointed to companies deemed essential, such as Target and Lowe’s, which are still open and serving customers, as examples that can be studied. Many businesses have changed their procedures to offer curb-side or drive-through service and are limiting the number of customers to avoid crowding.
“We’ve seen some of the essential businesses create really good models for how nonessential business could be operating,” he said.
Roberts said his understanding is that the group will be looking to real-life examples of how businesses in the U.S. and globally have reacted and will rely heavily on data that the group can gather as it makes recommendations.
“We want to have some meat and real-life examples to look at,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance, the Charlotte region’s main business group, didn’t reply to an email from The Ledger on Friday asking if the organization was involved in the effort. She said on Wednesday that she wasn’t aware of any such discussions.
Kerry Singe is an award-winning former Charlotte Observer business reporter.
This article originally appeared in the Charlotte Ledger Business Newsletter and is republished with permission.