5/15/20: THE OBX VISITOR ACCESS BAN LIFTS AT MIDNIGHT. HOW CAN WE ALL STAY SAFE?

afterdorian
Here they come!

 They’re coming.

And they’re eager.

So get ready.

Dare County lifts its two-month-long visitor access ban at 12:01 a.m. tomorrow, and it is my totally unscientific opinion—based solely on anecdotal evidence gathered on a recent out-of-town trip and my sense of “human nature”—that people are eager to bust loose from COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions and hit the road.

And what better place for busting loose than a wide-open beach, where the great outdoors allows for recommended physical distancing that cannot be guaranteed in any confined indoor space?

Today’s Dare Emergency Management bulletin anticipates the arrival of vacationers and restates important restrictions in effect during North Carolina’s Phase One, such as the 50 percent capacity limitation at retail businesses and the continued closure of bars, gyms, personal care businesses, and entertainment venues.

It also lists changes that visitors should expect, such as obtaining restaurant food only by takeout, drive-thru, or delivery, and not by seated service, indoors or outdoors, and the closure of community and public pools and spas.

“[I]t is important for everyone to understand,” the bulletin informs understatedly, “that vacations and visits to the Outer Banks will be different this year as we all adapt to COVID-19.”

The bulletin promotes face coverings, which it advises may be required by some businesses; the “three W’s” of wearing, waiting, and washing; and observance of signage explaining changes in business operations.

While “mass gatherings” remain limited in Phase One to 10 or fewer people, the gathering of people in “a house, household, place of residence, or current abode” is not considered a mass gathering, for purposes of the restriction. More than 10 people may reside together in a vacation home.

How do you distinguish the residents from the visiting partiers? you may ask. The bulletin does not say. We have to rely on the honor system.

Vacationers are urged to “spread out and away from others” on the beach and in the ocean.

And just in case visitors have forgotten, the ocean can pose hazards, too, the bulletin reminds. So don’t leave your brain in a shoebox in a closet somewhere while you’re busting loose.

See Bulletin No. 61: https://www.darenc.com/Home/Components/News/News/6260/1483

BUSTING LOOSE

I drove the highways between Southern Shores and the D.C. area two days this week to do essential business in Alexandria, Va., and was astonished by the traffic and the crowds.

Virginia just began Phase I of its economic reopening at midnight yesterday, so I figured I would encounter smooth sailing on the interstates. Ha! Not quite.

Governor Ralph Northam even gave Northern Virginia, the city of Richmond, and Accomack County, where workers at poultry plants have been hit especially hard by the coronavirus, an exemption from the gradual rollback on shuttered businesses, allowing them to delay for two weeks. This was another reason for me to expect open roads.

In my dreams only, apparently.

(Unlike Phase One in North Carolina, Virginia is permitting restaurants to reopen for outdoor dining, provided customers maintain social distancing, and hair and nail salons to operate, with severe restrictions. Otherwise, the two states’ plans are quite similar.)

Heading north on Interstate 95 on Tuesday afternoon, I did not see any gridlock on the south side—a welcome change for usually beleaguered commuters—but the highways were congested. I would say it was typical noontime Int. 95 traffic at 6 p.m., which is to say heavy.

I even encountered a delay around Fredericksburg for a vehicle fire on the shoulder.

Driving on the George Washington Memorial Parkway between Mount Vernon and Old Town Alexandria, I was surprised by the number of people out walking, jogging, biking, and just enjoying sitting by the Potomac River. If I did not know better, I would have thought it was a holiday, not a weekday.

Exercise has been a salvation for many during the stay-at-home orders. But few of the walkers, runners, cyclists, etc., I saw on the Mount Vernon Trail, which runs along the Potomac, observed six-foot distancing as they passed each other. Some wore face coverings, but not the majority.

With public parking lots closed, parked vehicles lined every side street and pull-off lookout offering access to the river and the trail.

Yesterday, upon my return, a popular rest area off of Interstate 95 south between Fredericksburg and Richmond was teeming with people around 2 p.m.

Less than half wore face coverings, and I was the only one wearing latex gloves—the better to avoid metallic surfaces.

Maintaining six-foot distancing in the women’s restroom was not possible unless you could dexterously dodge exiting patrons who suddenly emerged around a corner.

Bathroom stalls are closer than six feet, and all were open. I felt bad for the housekeeping staff, all of whom wore face masks.

The Hampton Roads area was heavy with traffic later yesterday afternoon, along Interstate 64 east, around Interstate 664 through the Monitor Merrimac Bridge Tunnel and then back on to 64 into Chesapeake to the Chesapeake Expressway, Rte. 168.

At 3:30 p.m., a local radio traffic reporter announced a backup at the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel, going east, of one mile “due to congestion.”

Each of the gas pumps at everybody’s favorite Wawa, off of the Hillcrest Parkway exit on 168, was being used, just like any other Thursday. I did not stop to see how many people were buying beer. I thought it would be too depressing.

I drove to Coinjock to gas up at the Shell station—$1.58.9 for regular unleaded—where I knew I could maintain my distance.

Passing through the Wright Memorial Bridge checkpoint, I observed a number of vehicles with Virginia license plates being directed to the side of the road. They arrived a day too early.

People are eager to bust loose.

For details on Virginia’s reopening, see:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/northam-reopening-plan-limits/2020/05/08/9c6155f4-9135-11ea-9e23-6914ee410a5f_story.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2020/05/08/virginia-reopen-coronavirus-faq/

STAYING SAFE

Once they have arrived, how can we and our visitors safely and peacefully coexist—other than by holing up in our temporary and permanent residences, respectively, and ordering food deliveries?

Today’s Washington Post has a great article about precautions that three public-health experts plan to take against the coronavirus as “state and local governments begin to allow businesses and public spaces to reopen.”

Reporter Katherine Shaver interviewed William Petri, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Virginia School of Medicine; Amanda Castel, an epidemiology professor at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health; and Boris Lushniak, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

All three said they will leave their homes more often ONLY as “COVID-19 cases in their communities decline and continue to do so.”

According to Ms. Shaver, Dr. Castel said she plans to wait until “her community meets established criteria, including a 14-day drop in the percentage of people testing positive.”

Such a drop has not occurred in North Carolina yet, as percentage rates have gone up and down, and Dare County has a low incidence of COVID-19 cases and no community-wide free testing. (See The Beacon’s post yesterday for an update on local testing.)

Dr. Lushniak of the UM School of Public Health said he would like to support the local economy, but “I’ll still be very wary of my environment.”

In general, Ms. Shaver reports, the three experts would consider three key points:

  • Whether they would be indoors or outdoors. (Outdoors is safer.)
  • Their proximity to employees and customers. (Can they stay at least six feet from others?)
  • How much time an outing would entail. (Less is better.)

Said Dr. Castel: “I certainly wouldn’t linger in places.”

Before entering any business, the experts said they would ask:

  • Are all staff members wearing masks?
  • Are employees staying at least six feet from each other?
  • Is there hand sanitizer or another way for workers and customers to easily clean or disinfect their hands?
  • Are there few enough customers that all can remain at least six feet apart?

“If I can’t maintain the six-foot rule,” Dr. Lushniak said. “I’ll stay away.”

I have never seen all staff members wearing masks and staying six feet away from each other in the supermarkets and other stores that I frequent in and near Southern Shores.

As for customers respecting the six-foot buffer: Good luck. In my experience, one of our two local supermarkets has taken steps to protect that buffer, while the other has not, unless it has made a change recently. I cannot speak to Walmart’s customer or staff environment.

Among other precautions pertaining to both North Carolina’s and Virginia’s more relaxed Phase One, the experts recommend:

  • Avoiding the use of public restrooms.
  • Bringing water to avoid having to use a public drinking fountain. (They were closed in the Virginia rest areas I frequented this week, stopping one time up and back.)
  • Trying to shop during off-hours when there are fewer customers.
  • Socializing only outdoors, with fewer than 10 people, at a safe distance and in masks.
  • Avoiding socializing with anyone who is older or at higher risk of COVID-19 complications.

All small outdoor get-togethers must be “bring your own” everything—“food, drinks, glasses, plates, utensils”—so people avoid touching the same surfaces, they all agreed.

And the $1 million question: Would they go to the beach?

Only if it is not crowded, they all agreed.

They also said “walking is preferable to sunbathing because you can better control how close others get,” and “they would make sure to wash or sanitize their hands as soon as their toes leave the sand,” according to The Post’s Ms. Shaver.

For more infection-control advice from the three public-health experts, including how to participate safely in outdoor sports, such as golf and tennis, see: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/wondering-whats-safe-as-states-start-to-reopen-heres-what-some-public-health-experts-say/2020/05/14/9e684e3c-949d-11ea-91d7-cf4423d47683_story.html

TODAY’S N.C. COVID-19 DASHBOARD

Today’s NCDHHS dashboard shows an increase of 622 cases, based on 12,279 tests, for a positive test rate of 5 percent, which is significantly better than yesterday’s 7.8 percent.

Yesterday’s new case count hit a record high of 691.

Hospitalizations statewide declined today by 15, from 507 to 492.

Have a great weekend, everyone.

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 5/15/20

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