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Bertie considers ‘shelter in place’

(Note: This story is revised from its original version posted earlier today and also contains new information.)

WINDSOR – Bertie County may become the first in the Roanoke-Chowan area to require its residents to shelter in place as the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic continues across the nation and the world.

Meeting here Thursday morning byway of limited live attendance, with others on the phone and an online presence, the Bertie Commissioners approved a motion to draft a resolution/proclamation that may lead to instituting a shelter in place order.

The board members agreed to take a “wait-and-see” approach on a possible directive coming from North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper who may issue a statewide shelter in place order.

“We [will] wait on the governor and be prepared if he doesn’t do something or leave it up to the counties, then we’d be ready to put it in place right away,” said Ronald “Ron” Wesson, chairman of the Bertie Commissioners.

If the county does proceed with its version of a shelter in place order, it will not become effective until Monday, March 30 at the earliest.

“That gives us a couple of days to come up with the language of the resolution, but more importantly it gives our governor a chance to possibly order a statewide shelter in place,” said Wesson, chairman of the Bertie Commissioners.

Wesson wanted to make it extremely clear that if the county does move forward with enacting such a proclamation, it will not prohibit the county’s citizens from going to work (in or out of the county) or traveling to stores to purchase essential items, to include food and medicine. It also will not impact farming operations.

Prior to approving the motion, the commissioners heard from several of its county department heads as well as medical experts with Albemarle Regional Health Services (ARHS).

Ashley Stoop with ARHS called COVID-19 a “rapidly evolving situation statewide, now with 636 cases and two deaths.”

She also noted there are six confirmed COVID-19 cases in the ARHS region, to include three in Bertie, two in Hertford, and one in Pasquotank.

‘We recognize there is community spread of this virus in North Carolina,” Stoop said. “As of right now we are not recommending mass testing nor do we recommend testing for those showing mild symptoms of the virus. For those showing more serious symptoms, to include high fever and respiratory issues, we urge them to first call their doctor.”

She added that social distancing holds the key to stopping the transmission of the virus, and helping to save lives.

Bertie Emergency Services Director Mitch Cooper said he had read the shelter in place orders approved in Pitt and Mecklenburg counties and said Bertie was already recommending much of the same essential items in those orders.

“If they need to go to the store, they go to the store; if they need to take care of loved ones or friends, they do that,” Cooper said. “The biggest thing I see in their proclamations is the limitation of gatherings of more 10 people. The shelter in place term is misunderstood. What is does is advise people if they don’t have any necessary business to take care of other than making sure they or their family members have food or proper medication, we’re just asking them to stay home.”

It was at this point where Wesson first suggested that Bertie consider a shelter in place.

“Would such a proclamation cause our citizens to take this more seriously,” he asked. “Does such a proclamation carry more weight over the precautions we’re already asking our citizens to take?”

Commissioner Ernestine Bazemore noted that Bertie has an aging population, those who are at high risk for contracting COVID-19.

“For that reason I think it’s to our benefit to put this [proclamation] in place,” Bazemore stressed.

Commissioner Tammy Lee asked if there are Bertie citizens out doing things, ignoring the precautions, that put them at a higher risk?

“From the gatherings I’ve seen – people in close contact and hugging each other – I think they are harming themselves unknowingly,” Wesson remarked. “I think having a shelter in place proclamation helps protect our citizens, including the more vulnerable.”

ARHS Director Battle Betts Jr. – who joined the meeting via a phone hook-up – stated he saw no harm in Bertie approving such a proclamation.

“This issue comes down to shelf life [how long will the proclamation last),” Betts said. “There is no right or wrong answer to that, but I think that’s why the governor is delaying a decision to implement a statewide [shelter in place] order as he’s taking advice on the shelf life.”

The commissioners also heard from town of Windsor officials who said they would consider joining the county’s lead in a shelter in place proclamation.

“We also need to ask our other municipalities to follow what we are recommending,” Wesson said.

As part of the approved motion, Wesson suggested that if the measure is enacted then it needs to be accompanied by a smaller document containing easy to understand bullet points that will be distributed to county citizens.