Gaston County leaders urged businesses to reopen. New coronavirus cases rose six-fold.

Gaston County leaders urged businesses to reopen. New coronavirus cases rose six-fold.
(Source: WBTV)

GASTON COUNTY, N.C. (Charlotte Observer) - When Gaston County enjoyed low coronavirus rates in late April, the all-Republican board of county commissioners urged businesses and churches to resist Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-at-home order that had shuttered thousands of them.

Now the county’s virus numbers are going in the wrong direction, and fast.

About seven new cases of COVID-19 a day were reported in late May, the county health director says. Now it’s spiked to about 40 a day, a roughly six-fold increase. The total count of confirmed cases reached 1,464 as of Wednesday, and 16 people have died of virus-related causes.

Gaston’s percentage of positive tests has more than tripled, from 5% in late May to more than 18% for the week ending July 4, the county says. Public Health Director Steve Eaton said the growing numbers don’t stem from increased testing alone.

“What that’s demonstrating is a broader community spread across our community,” Eaton said this week.

The spikes in new cases and percent-positive test results began around Memorial Day weekend, Eaton said, shortly after North Carolina moved into Phase 2 of its gradual reopening. Eaton said he has no data that show whether Gaston officials’ eagerness to reopen influenced the spike, which he called consistent with what other U.S. and North Carolina counties have seen.

The Harvard Global Health Institute ranks Gaston’s rate of new daily cases seventh-highest in North Carolina. Mecklenburg County ranks third-highest and, while roughly five times Gaston’s population, has reported nearly 10 times as many total cases and deaths.

“It weighs heavy on individuals,” Eaton said. “I think people are taking it seriously, but at the same time they’re tired, worn out and sick of face masks, they’re weary of hearing the ‘Three Ws’ (of precautions). Not only here but across the United States people want desperately to go back to the old way of doing things.”

While coronavirus victims are most often elderly, Eaton said the new cases have risen most sharply among adults age 24 to 49, “folks who are out working and out in the community.”

Appeals to wear masks, maintain six-foot distances in public and wash hands regularly will be part of a public awareness campaign the county plans. Eaton also urges county residents to continue regular doctor visits to control existing conditions that can exacerbate the virus, and to get outdoor exercise but stay at home as much as possible.

As Gaston County’s virus count rose, 16-year health and human services director Chris Dobbins abruptly resigned on June 8. The county hasn’t commented on the reason, calling it an undisclosed personnel matter.

Dobbins resigned days after his department posted a Facebook message that called racism “an underlying cause of the disparities among those suffering and dying from COVID-19.” The post added that the department “recognizes that it represents and works within these systems built to benefit some people over others.”

Dobbins could not be reached for this article. “I hope this community continues to address the tough issues because tough issues are not easy to solve,” he told WSOC as he left work for the last time.

County commissioners’ Chairman Tracy Philbeck said this week that Dobbins’ departure “had absolutely nothing to do with his leadership on COVID-19.”

Philbeck defended the county’s response to the pandemic but blamed Cooper for what he called mixed messages that led many residents to distrust government warnings. While Cooper’s stay-at-home orders allowed some entities to stay open while closing others, striking many as unfair, he said, the county has instead emphasized the need for masks, social distancing and hygiene.

The county acknowledged Cooper’s authority to order non-essential businesses to close. But in an April 29 statement, county commissioners had said they support “the reopening of businesses and houses of worship throughout Gaston County” as long as they follow health guidelines including capacity limits.

A University of Maryland index of social distancing among U.S. counties rated Gaston behind Mecklenburg County for the period June 1 to July 3, but in line with distancing in the nearby counties of Lincoln, Iredell, Union and Cabarrus.

“Here’s all I can tell you: Gaston County, based on the data that was out there, got ahead of the curve, Gaston County began to flatten the curve (of new cases) and the governor’s decision was that the counties could not handle this,” Philbeck said. “So the question is, is the governor comfortable with the results he’s getting?”

Philbeck asserted that there is no evidence reopening businesses has contributed to spread of the virus. But the World Health Organization said Thursday that tiny droplets in the air can carry the virus and might have caused outbreaks in restaurants, places of worship and places of work, The New York Times reported.