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Gaston County Planning for Gradual Re-Opening

GASTONIA, N.C. – While waiting to see what Gov. Cooper and state leaders will decide on the current Stay at Home order, Gaston County leaders are doing work behind the scenes to prepare for a gradual re-opening of the local economy.

As of Monday evening, Gaston County has had 120 positive COVID-19 cases. Of those, nearly 100 have recovered. In addition, of those with active cases, only a handful currently need hospitalization.

“The compliance of our residents with the Stay at Home order has done exactly what we hoped it would – flatten the curve and protect our local hospital from experiencing a spike that could have overwhelmed its capabilities and resources,” Department of Health and Human Services Director Chris Dobbins said.

Gaston County has been in front of the COVID-19 crisis, with leaders putting a stricter restriction on gatherings than Mecklenburg County first did, and implementing its own Stay at Home order three days before Gov. Cooper put one in place for the whole state.

Board Chairman Tracy Philbeck said those decisions were made because of the data about the crisis and the projected needs for the health care system and Gaston County residents. Now, with no new significant rise in cases despite a broadening of testing capacity, County leaders are assembling plans for a slow re-opening of the economy once the Governor’s Stay at Home order ends on April 29th.

Much as the adding of restrictions until arriving at the Stay at Home order was incremental, so too will be the lifting of those restrictions. The first step, Philbeck said, is to get people back to work at businesses where social distancing can be maintained and proper sanitizing used to keep employees and customers safe.

“People need to work to support themselves and their families,” Philbeck said. “Every step along the way, we’ve listened to our experts. And now our experts are telling us that with the conditions we see here, we can start putting folks back to work.”

A slight loosening of restrictions on gatherings is under consideration, as are which categories of businesses will be allowed to re-open.

Dobbins warned that COVID-19 would likely be an ever-present concern for Gaston County residents until an effective vaccine is created and doses can be widely distributed.

“We’re going to continue to watch this very closely,” Dobbins said. “We’re constantly checking our data, and our residents need to know if we see a spike in the numbers of cases, we may have to tighten certain restrictions for a time once again.”

Restrictions will continue to be stronger for long-term care facilities, which are filled with residents at higher risk for serious complications from coronavirus. Additionally, more stringent safety precautions for those who are 65 and older, as well as those who are immunocompromised will likely continue for some time.

“This will not be a case of us flipping a switch and returning to our old normal,” Philbeck said. “This will be a gradual reopening with a constant eye on this devastating disease as we fight to create a new normal in these months ahead.”

County manager Dr. Kim Eagle has instructed a task force to put plans in place for what a gradual return to work for Gaston County’s nonessential employees will look like. Most non-public safety county employees have continued to telework during the Stay at Home order.

That will be followed by at a later date of a gradual reopening of certain buildings and in-person services once data indicates it is safe to do so.