By Catharin Shepard •
Staff writer •
As health experts and government leaders continued tracking the spread of the coronavirus known as COVID-19, people in Hoke County started to feel the effects of the response to slow the spread of the pandemic.
Both Hoke County and the city of Raeford issued statements about the coronavirus, informing citizens that officials are watching the situation and in some ways, taking steps to lesson the potential impact.
Hoke County commissioners declared a State of Emergency for the county Monday night, and approved measures to help citizens for the duration of the emergency. Those measures included:
Suspending county sewer and water service non-payment cutoffs for 30 days
Suspending foreclosure proceedings for non-payment of taxes, and defer tax payment plans during of the State of Emergency declaration
Expanding meals for senior citizens through Meals on Wheels during the current emergency (not permanently)
Approving a policy for teleworkers in the event county employees have to work from home
The county activated its emergency communications website, www.readyhoke.org. County Manager Letitia Edens issued a statement Friday saying the county plans to continue operations as
best it can.
Some departments made changes: Parks and Recreation youth sports practices were on hold until at least April 6. Senior Services closed the congregate feeding site at the senior center, which prompted commissioners to expand Meals on Wheels. The Meals on Wheels program also delivered shelf-stable meals for the week to program participants.
The county is doing its best to keep people safe, Edens said in the statement.
“We have been communicating with state and federal officials about COVID-19 and the best course of action to keep our citizens and staff safe. We realize this is a difficult time, and may cause significant unpredictable hardships, and the decisions we make in response are very carefully considered,” she said. “At this time, our County and services will remain open. If we receive an order to close departments or delay services, we are prepared to continue to remotely keep core functions operational.”
Raeford City Manager Dennis Baxley also sent out a statement assuring residents city services would continue, but that the city office buildings would close to the general public. The impacted facilities are Raeford City Hall, Public Works, Raeford Fire Department and the Raeford Civic Center. Any events held at city parks must meet the restrictions on the size of gatherings issued by the state.
Raeford residents can make utility bill payments online through https://raefordnc.mygovhub.com and can drop tax payments through the drop deposit at Raeford City Hall.
Education institutions began looking for ways to keep students learning during closures after North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper ordered all public schools to close for two weeks. Hoke County Schools sent Chromebooks and iPads home to children Monday, and by Tuesday were delivering meals to bus stops across the county.
Sandhills Community College’s Hoke Center campus and its main campus in Pinehurst remained open, but moved continuing education and curriculum courses to online classes beginning Monday, March 16.
“There will be no face-to-face instruction over the next several weeks,” Sandhills Hoke Center Dean Dr. Twana McKnight said in an email. “The health and safety of our students, faculty, staff, and local community are of great importance. We will continue to carefully monitor the situation and make adjustments as deemed necessary.”
Places of worship had to decide whether to continue holding in-person services and events. Some continued offering worship services with extra cleaning in church facilities as a precaution, while others announced cancellations. Some churches used the internet to live-stream messages, so congregations could still participate from home.
Raeford United Methodist Church Pastor Brian Wingo used his church’s phone system to send his congregants a message Sunday morning. The Bishop of the North Carolina Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church recommended canceling services for two weeks, and Raeford UMC followed that recommendation, Wingo said.
“The church has been there since 1903 but I think this is probably the first time, at least in recent memory, that this has happened. We’re taking an overabundance of caution,” he said Monday. “Our congregants are by and large elderly folk, and from a personal perspective I don’t want to risk their safety or their health.”
The church also postponed its upcoming spaghetti dinner fundraiser. Wingo said he’s trying to take precautions during his pastoral work with congregants as well.
“You greet people with a hug or a handshake and some of those things come naturally, and you have to stop and think,” he said.
Funeral gatherings might also be impacted as people try to practice social distancing, the pastor noted. A funeral held this weekend saw guests stop by for visitation hours, but had light attendance at the service. One funeral set for today, moved to a graveside ceremony.
Stores around Raeford had many bare shelves over the weekend, with customer service employees working long hours to keep up with the demand. Shoppers cleared the shelves of bread, water, toilet paper, hand sanitizer and some cleaning products.
Some major retailers such as Walmart announced changes to their hours of operation in order to do additional cleaning and restocking. The Walmart in Raeford, which is usually open 24 hours a day, changed their hours to open at 6 a.m. and close at 11 p.m.
Dollar General asked in a corporate press release that customers allow the first hour of its store operations for senior citizens to shop in order to reduce the risk of their exposure to the virus.
“In keeping with the Company’s mission of Serving Others, Dollar General wants to provide these at-risk customers with the ability to purchase the items they need and want at the beginning of each day to avoid busier and more crowded shopping periods,” the company stated.
In an executive order Tuesday, the governor ordered all restaurants and bars in North Carolina to close their dining rooms by 5 p.m. Take-out and delivery options, where available, could continue, according to a press release from Cooper’s office. The executive order also included expansions of unemployment insurance for people affected by the emergency.
A number of businesses in Hoke County have asked some of their staff members to work from home where possible, Economic Development Director Will Wright said.
“It’s just a kind of wait and see moment,” Wright said.
The governor requested Monday that the U.S. Small Business Administration grant a disaster declaration for business owners in North Carolina facing economic losses due to the coronavirus. The declaration would make it possible for the SBA to grant disaster loans to affected businesses in North Carolina to help them meet financial obligations and operating expenses.
Court cases continued
The Hoke County Courthouse and Clerk of Court’s office are still open during the usual hours, but will have reduced operations for the next month.
“Please do not come to the courthouse if you are sick or feel you may have been exposed to COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, as you will be turned away at the door by courthouse security,” an automated phone message for the courthouse phone system said.
Chief Justice Cheri Beasley ordered most Superior Court cases, with a few exceptions, continued for 30 days. Potential jurors summoned for jury duty between March 16 and April 6 were discharged and excused from service, according to a phone message from the courthouse.
“Chief Justice Beasley stressed that while courthouses must remain open, officials must drastically curtail trips to local courts to help reduce community transmission of COVID-19 and further protect employees of the courts who must still interact with the public,” according to a statement from the North Carolina court system.
People who were scheduled to appear in court within the next 30 days should check with their attorney for a new court date. The Clerk of Court’s office plans to send notices of continued court dates to addresses on record as soon as the District Attorney’s office determines the new schedule.
Pending further orders from the chief justice, court will resume April 13, officials reported. In the meantime, members of the public can conduct some types of business through online court services at https://www.nccourts.gov.
Public safety changes
Hoke County Sheriff Hubert Peterkin put additional precautions in place for Hoke County deputies, jail staff and citizens.
No visitors are currently allowed at the jail, including family members and attorneys. Attorneys can schedule phone communication with clients instead.
Family members can conduct video visits that will allow them to use electronic devices (tablets, smartphones) to speak with their loved one. To set up a video visit, go to www.videovisitsanywhere.com. To add funds to inmate canteen send money orders for U.S. Postal Service (Only) to PO Box 300 Raeford NC 28376 or online www.jailpackstore.com or call 1-800-822-9388
The county jail is also screening inmates at the time of intake with questions and a temperature check in the booking room with an infrared thermometer. Inmates who have a fever cannot enter the facility, the sheriff’s office said.
The jail has stepped up sanitation efforts by authorizing the use of hand sanitizer for inmates and has given incarcerated people extra soap and masks. There are medical personnel on hand, and officers are using one vehicle to transport any individuals who show any symptoms. The jail also identified space with its own ventilation system, so none of the air mixed with air breathed by the rest of the people in the detention facility.
All staff members are being fitted with protective equipment including a mask, hand sanitizer, wipes, gloves and cleaning supplies. The office has also passed out COVID-19 information to staff and inmates.