Mask ambassadors will soon help Charlotte area residents follow COVID-19 rules

Mask ambassadors will soon help Charlotte area residents follow COVID-19 rules
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Alison Kuznitz/Charlotte Observer) - Bilingual mask ambassadors from diverse communities will soon be frequenting businesses across Charlotte and surrounding towns, ensuring residents are following crucial health guidelines to slow the spread of COVD-19.

Environmental health inspectors, typically trained to monitor food safety, will also help with Mecklenburg’s compliance efforts, County Manager Dena Diorio told county commissioners Wednesday night.

“We think that education and informing can actually go a long way,” Diorio said of the county’s new program. “We’re really looking forward to getting started.”

Mecklenburg County has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the state. But key coronavirus metrics, such as the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests and hospitalizations, are declining, Public Health Director Gibbie Harris said Wednesday.

Residents should remain vigilant in following health guidelines, especially wearing masks and social distancing, Harris urged.

North Carolinians have been required to wear masks in public settings since late June, though police officers cannot enforce Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order against individual violators. To date, mask enforcement has largely fallen on business owners, who are asked to require patrons to wear face coverings while also juggling a range of other coronavirus precautions.

Diorio didn’t specify when the program will begin or how many part-time ambassadors might be hired. Members of the COVID-19 Business Leaders Roundtable voiced support for the idea during Tuesday’s meeting.

Similar community-based models are already in place for Las Vegas and Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, Diorio said.

Meanwhile, local law enforcement agencies — like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police, the county ABC Board and the county’s Sheriff Office — are cracking down on more “straightforward” coronavirus restrictions, particularly Mecklenburg’s late-night alcohol limits. North Carolina has a similar alcohol curfew, though certain provisions — such as for on-site food service — are more flexible.

“Over time, we have had some loopholes with the governor’s order, which made it specifically difficult to enforce,” CMPD Deputy Chief Jeff Estes told county commissioners Wednesday.

Restaurants are prohibited from selling alcohol after 11 p.m. in unincorporated parts of Mecklenburg, the city of Charlotte, and towns of Davidson, Matthews and Pineville. Local restaurants can offer delivery or pick-up food orders after 11 p.m., but on-site customers are banned between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. The regulations, for now, won’t lift until the state moves into Phase Three, Mecklenburg officials say.

Estes said officers have visited 290 establishments, primarily restaurants that serve alcohol and gaming establishments. There were 20 violations so far, he said, with four referrals made to the county health department.

“We came across gaming locations who were clearly not supposed to be open,” Estes said, with some associated violence.

At County Commissioner Susan Harden’s request, Estes said CMPD will regularly publish enforcement actions tied to the coronavirus, similar to data released after the first weekend of tight alcohol rules in the Charlotte area.

“Our community is begging us to enforce because they recognize enforcement is one of the few tools we have to actually mitigate this virus,” Harden said.

Elaine Powell, vice chair of the county commissioners, said she supports tightening Mecklenburg’s enforcement approach, which many elected officials described as too lax during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m not in Wonderland — some people need a penalty. They’re sassy and don’t understand how serious this is,” Powell said, while simultaneously asking for more hopeful messaging as outbreaks continue.

‘SEEING SOME GOOD NEWS’

Wednesday’s commissioner meeting came hours after Cooper extended Phase Two of reopening by another five weeks — through Sept. 11.

Bars, gyms, entertainment venues and other struggling businesses will stay shuttered. Restaurants, retail stores and other establishments must continue to grapple with reduced capacity limits and rigorous safety precautions.

Harris said people who need to get tested for COVID-19 can now do so in the county without difficulty. About 3,500 tests are administered daily in Mecklenburg through Atrium Health, Novant Health, CVS Health and Walgreens Pharmacy.

In recent weeks, nearly 65% of residents said they sought out testing because they were experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. Only a fraction of people said they were tested due to an infected household member, or after possibly being exposed through work and travel.

Harris said 60% of the more than 21,000 infections are among county residents below age 39.

“We’re seeing some good news at the moment...We need to stay focused to make sure that these numbers continue to go in the right direction,” Harris said. “It is not time to stay fatigued or relaxed.”

The health director on Wednesday also defended Mecklenburg’s contact tracing program, intended to pinpoint coronavirus clusters and prevent infectious flare-ups.

For the vast majority of COVID-19 cases around the Charlotte area, health officials don’t know the location of exposure or how many people may have come in direct contact with a contagious individual, the Observer reported earlier Wednesday. Officials, for example, struggle to effectively — and definitively — connect new outbreaks to specific houses of worship, bars and restaurants.

“Contact tracing at this point is educational,” Harris told commissioners. “I think it is worth doing. But I do think we have to be realistic about what it’s accomplishing.”