The Transylvania Times -

By Alex Perri
Staff Writer 

Official: Now Is Not The Time To Be Out And About - Brevard NC


Last updated 3/25/2020 at 5:16pm

Visitor numbers in the state and national forests resembled that of peak summer over the weekend, but Transylvania Public Health Director Elaine Russell said unequivocally that if people continue to ignore the calls for social distancing, the county’s health care resources, and those beyond the region, will suffer disastrous consequences.

“If we do not get this curve flattened, the spread and impact of COVID-19 is going to overwhelm our already very taxed hospital and clinical systems,” she said. “We do not have sufficient ventilators. We do not have sufficient ICU beds for everyone to get sick at one time. But everybody continuing to go out and socialize and do their thing, this wave of COVID is going to hit our already taxed hospital and medical systems and our medical providers in one wave and it’s not going to be able to handle it.”

On Monday, the Board of Commissioners voted four to one in favor of sending a letter requesting the “full closure of the forests and parks within our county, if necessary, during this initial ‘flattening the curve’ phase of COVID-19 mitigation.”

On Tuesday, it was announced DuPont State Recreational Forest and Holmes Educational State Forest would be temporarily closing to the public. On Wednesday, Gorges State Park did the same.

Commissioner Will Cathey was the only no vote in the decision to send the letter to Gov. Roy Cooper, state Sen. Chuck Edwards, state Rep. Jake Johnson, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, asking for the parks and forest temporary shut-down. Cathey citied that “it’s too early for this.”

“Flattening the curve” is a term, now widespread, used by epidemiologists to describe what happens to the “epi curve” (or the visual diagram of the frequency of new cases of an illness over time) when a community practices social distancing. Social distancing aims to “flatten the curve” by preventing the virus to spread very quickly, all at once through a community, and instead spread out the onset of new cases over a longer period of time. The hope is that through flattening the curve, hospitals will not be overwhelmed with lots of new cases all at once, and supply chains for critical items like ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) have time to recuperate, according to Russell.

Many interpreted the advice to social distance as a great time to enjoy the outdoors. However, it seems that too many people had the same idea.

In Monday’s commissioners meeting, Commissioner Paige Lemel said DuPont was dealing with “unbelievable crowds.”

“(DuPont employees) were just sort of just incredulous to know that their supplies in the portalets were stolen,” she said. “Toilet paper and sanitizer and things were being ripped out. So, it’s just been extraordinarily frustrating when they’re already very slimly staffed to try to handle these crowds.”

On top of some poorly behaved visitors, Lemel also took issue with the number of out-of-state visitors present at DuPont over the weekend.”

“N.C. Ag. informed me that we had over 30 states represented in the Hooker Falls parking lot recently,” Lemel said. “And that’s just, people coming from hot spots and bringing things into our community and taxing our resources.”

Commissioner Jason Chappell said he thought the decision to keep forests open was sending “mixed messages.”

“I think if anybody was around the community this weekend, you saw some tremendous amounts of numbers visiting our wonderful resources here in Transylvania County,” he said. “I’m afraid that we’re sending some mixed messages. When we say, ‘We need to practice social distancing, we need to limit gatherings,’ but if you drive up to Pisgah National Forest, you see individuals lined up parked all the way up the mountain. With (public forests) being open this weekend, parking lots were full, the road was full on both sides and the earlier response was to close the bathrooms. And if anyone remembers a few years ago when national forests had some budgetary issues and they closed the bathrooms, there were major problems because it sends mixed messages. I think we need to reach out to our partners and ask them to close (the forests) at least temporarily.”

County Manager Jaime Laughter said that a March 18 meeting with Emergency Management was interrupted by a call asking for EMS response to a hiker who had fallen off Looking Glass Rock.

“There is concern that it promotes the spread of COVID-19 and also that it can limit the resources we have on hand in order to move forward with emergency management,” Laughter said.

Transylvania County Rescue Squad Capt. Dale Whitlock said the male had tumbled about 40 to 50 feet off Looking Glass Rock, but he was unaware of his current condition.

Whitlock also said his team responded to two other calls in Pisgah over the weekend for injured or lost hikers, but that it is just something his team expects when the weather gets nice.

In response to the large crowds seen over the weekend, The Hub bike shop decided to close doors to visitors on Monday and move to an appointment-only model for customers, as well as offering a “locals only” discount to try to encourage local business.

“This weekend we were all kind of shocked by the amount of people that were still coming out, and even the week leading up to it,” said shop employee John Angermeier.

Initially, the shop moved to a “grab-and-go” policy after seeing customers lingering in the store and socializing, but the shop ultimately decided it was the responsible decision to close doors altogether, while still remaining open as an essential business, so that bike commuters can still have transportation needs met.

Angermeier said the weekend corresponded with many people’s spring breaks, and he saw people coming in for trail advice, but he also noticed many people seemed to be in Brevard as a way to “escape into the mountains.”

The decision to move to a “doors shut, but still open” model was a tough one, Angermeier said, especially for the more than 20 employees on The Hub’s payroll, but the decision came down to what was responsible.

“I think it was pretty blatantly non-social distancing,” Angermeier said of the customers he saw over the weekend. “There was a blatant disregard for the situation that’s starting to happen around us, you know, or that has been happening around us, and it definitely just made us all feel uncomfortable.”

And while Angermeier was quick to point out that The Hub loves and relies on its out-of-town customers and its atmosphere as a social hangout, the shop needed to change its policy in the midst of this pandemic.

Russell said to look at what happened in New Orleans after Mardi Gras as an example of what happens as a result of crowds, now that the coronavirus has been transmitted through “community spread” or what happens when one tests positive for the virus without having contact with any confirmed cases.

“Now the city of New Orleans is in a crisis mode in response to the cases of COVID-19 that have spread,” she said. “And, it spread back into other states from where people were at Mardi Gras. That is the most relevant analogy I can give you for right now. People need to stay home. This is not a vacation. “It is not a fun time. It is a time to make the self-sacrifice and think about the greater good of society to preserve what we have with society. They need to stay home.

“It is not the time for socializing. It is not the time for vacations. It is not the time for going out and about and being out and about in society and recreating in groups. It is simply a time where we have to pull back and make those sacrifices for a period of time so that we can flatten this curve of the (epidemic) spread of COVID-19.”

DuPont ranger Bruce MacDonald said the decision to close had been in the works for a while leading up to Tuesday’s closure announcement. The main concern was that there was simply not enough room for people to social distance.

MacDonald also said another factor in the decision was with high visitor numbers comes increased chances for injures and the additional stress it could put on emergency management personnel.

“I understand people wanting to get out where there’s more space, and it seems like a logical decision,” he said. “It’s not so much each individual person that’s making an irresponsible choice, but when thousands of people make the same choice at the same time, then it all combines into one big accumulation of people.”

“We need to consistently support and provide the message of social distancing and minimizing any opportunity for the spread of COVID-19,” Russell said. “And while it’s great that people can get out in nature, the high volume and high number of people using our parks and forest lands is very concerning for the spread of COVID-19, because even with the best of intentions, you’re still going to have interactions with people, and that is a risk.”

As of 2 p.m., Wednesday, Pisgah National Forest remained open, with closures of all public campgrounds and public facilities.

Dispersed and backcountry camping were still permitted.


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