Restrictions could be eased after April 29; schools likely to open May 18

At last Thursday’s Zoom Town Board meeting and again Tuesday morning, Mayor Pat Taylor stressed the need to work collaboratively on a gradual opening of town businesses, properties and public places.

During a webinar Tuesday morning, Taylor said the Emergency Operations Committee (EOC) of Macon County comprised of Emergency Management Services (EMS), Macon County Social Services and Macon County Public Health, determined it was important that all the counties and municipalities across the region work in consort – that is, all do the same thing at the same time – and work collaboratively on a gradual opening, said Taylor.

“We are all following Governor Cooper’s lead in this,” he said. “He needs to make a decision on his proclamation, which expires at the end of April. The hope is to be back to normal somewhere between May 15 and June 1. But we expect to see directions from the governor, and from the Department of Health and Human Services as to how counties and towns can gradually reopen collaboratively,” he said.

Mayor Taylor said he expects the governor will lift some restrictions at the end of the month but unlike the governors of Georgia and Florida, he expects Gov. Cooper to take a more conservative approach.

“Whatever it is, Highlands will mirror the governor’s plan,” he said.

Meanwhile, the town is going to start considering where things in town could loosen up when it’s time.

And that was the gist of a Zoom meeting orchestrated by the Highlands Chamber of Commerce Monday to which the town was invited and during which about 15 others weighed in.

Commissioners Amy Patterson and Marc Hehn and Mayor Taylor attended.

According to Taylor, there is pressure from the Highlands business community to flip a switch and open up, but the Chamber said, “we need to be careful and be deliberate,” he said.

“We have a great situation in that we haven’t had any COVID outbreaks, so the worst thing that could happen is to open up and have outbreaks,” said Taylor. “The town will be talking and working with the Chamber to come up with a plan as to when and what should open.”

He said he expects it to be gradual, but in what regard? Hotels? Downtown retail services? What about restaurants? When should they open?

“We will be getting input from all areas while we consider what the opening will look like regarding social distancing. Can we open downtown and have the same density as in the past? Can people maintain social distancing while filling up parking spaces and sidewalks or is there another alternative – a gradual opening up, maybe blocking off some parking spaces? If we were to open downtown, we still have the problem of bringing people from everywhere to a concentrated area [downtown] going store to store,” he said.

Also, being considered is when it will be safe for the town to open public facilities like the Rec Park and under what circumstances.

Taylor said with the Georgia governor opening up businesses in his state that don’t promote social distancing like hair and nail salons, tattoo parlors, and gyms, there is a potential for an increase in COVID cases particularly after the two-week incubation period and “BAM,” he said, which could potentially affect Highlands.

“I realize our business community’s livelihoods are at stake, but we also have a large group of older residents who are vulnerable and so there is also pressure to keep things closed,” he said. “Many patrons of our higher-end restaurants, go out to eat 2-3 times a week. But given the outbreak, and given their vulnerability, just because we open restaurants doesn’t mean they will come out to eat.”

Taylor said everyone is waiting on the governor to know when social distancing requirements that are in place now can be relaxed.

Meanwhile, schools are likely to reopen Monday, May 18 – the governor closed them through Friday, May 15 and it’s possible that could be the date on which everything opens ups. But there is no word yet.

“The governor’s current executive order ends on May 15 which means that schools in NC are set to reopen on May 18 pending any future executive orders,” said MC Schools Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin.

“In the event that schools do reopen on May 18, the current school year runs through June 12. As it now stands, our students would return to school on May 18, with the final student day being May 22 as per the original calendar. However, this can be modified by future executive orders from the governor,” he said.

Though teachers will be at schools through June 12 for teacher workdays, Baldwin said it is his opinion that the governor will not require schools to stay open for students through June 12.
In addition, he said it appears all state tests – EOG, EOC, AR reading – will be waived for the 2019-’20 school year.

“Teachers and parents have done the best that they can under the circumstances that have been presented. Overall, students have been communicating and keeping up with their instructional activities, as well,” said Baldwin. “However, May 18-May 22 has not been and cannot be considered a normal final grading period for our schools. We will all be glad to return to normal.”

Pictured at the top of the article is Highlands School.

By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

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