MINT HILL, NC – It’s been over twelve weeks since North Carolina reported its first case of COVID-19. Over ten weeks since students last set foot in a school building or anyone in North Carolina sat down in a restaurant for dinner, and eight weeks since Governor Cooper mandated that all North Carolinians remain at their place of residence outside of a shortlist of essential business to slow the rapid spread of COVID-19.
Mecklenburg County has the most COVID-19 cases of any county in the state, but Mayor Brad Simmons feels that the stay at home order went well in Mint Hill, where there were fewer cases of COVID-19 compared to Charlotte proper and surrounding areas. “By and large, most of our citizens adhered to the stay at home edict,” agrees Chief of Police Tim Ledford.
Six weeks at home had positive consequences in Mint Hill beside a lower case count. According to Chief Ledford, less traffic on Mint Hill’s streets led to a 161% decrease in crashes compared to the same time period in 2019, a 50% decrease in violent crime, and a 40% decrease in the total number of property crimes reported.
But staying at home for weeks on end also brought negative consequences beyond boredom. “We did see a 50% increase in assaults as more people were sheltering in place,” admits Ledford. The stay at home order also forced many nonessential businesses to close indefinitely. Businesses that were allowed to remain open-faced greatly reduced foot traffic. Restaurants that had previously relied mainly on dine-in customers were forced to pivot to takeout-only and curbside service. Anyone who remained open scrambled to make changes to assure the safety of both customers and employees.
“It was hard to see Mint Hill shut down, even though it was the right thing to do,” says Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Paige McKinney, who has helped to spread the word about chamber member restaurants and shops that offered curbside pickup over the last two months. “I think the town as a whole did a great job with the stay at home order, just coming out for essentials,” says Patrick Holton, owner of Woof ‘n Hoof and one of Mint Hill’s Commissioners, “but I think it affected just about every business in Mint Hill.”
May 8 marked a turning point for North Carolina as Governor Cooper announced a move into Phase 1 of his three-phased reopening plan for the state. Described by the Governor as a “limited easing of restrictions” designed to “boost certain parts of our economy while keeping important safety rules in place,” the order removed the distinction between essential and nonessential businesses. It allowed retail businesses to open at 50% capacity with social distancing and sanitizing protocols. Residents were still advised to stay at home, but it permitted them to travel for commercial activity at any open business.
On a local level, Phase 1 allowed some businesses to open that had been closed for six weeks, but realistically, the move to Phase 1 did not have a huge impact on Mint Hill’s business community. Many local restaurants and retailers had modified operations to allow them to be open to some extent during the stay at home order; others were forced to close their doors until a future date.
On Friday, May 22, North Carolina moved into Phase 2 of the reopening plan. Aptly named “Safer at Home,” Phase 2 represents “another careful step forward” according to a May 20 press release from the Governor’s office, but is ultimately a more modest step forward than originally planned.
Under Safer at Home, the Stay at Home order is officially lifted although high-risk residents are still encouraged to stay home and everyone is encouraged to continue to telework when possible. People can gather in groups of up to ten indoors and twenty-five indoors. Some businesses, like restaurants, salons, and barbers, will enjoy a much-anticipated reopening at 50% capacity with strict distancing, cleaning, and masking requirements. Others, like childcare facilities, day camps, and overnight camps will also be able to open with enhanced cleaning and screening requirements. Still others, like bars, night clubs, gyms, movie theaters, and bowling alleys, will remain closed for the time being.
As we continue to lessen restrictions surrounding leaving the house and gathering in groups, it’s important for everyone to remember that COVID-19 hasn’t disappeared. “I’m concerned that people are going to get complacent and think that just because we’re going through these stages and reopening things, everything’s fine,” says Holton. “Until there is some sort of vaccine or solution, it’s going to be there. I want to make sure people know that it’s still out there.”
“My main concern is that we continue to pay attention to social distancing and some of the rules that have been put in place for our safety,” says Simmons. “I don’t want us to think now that we’ve started reopening that we can just go 100% back to where we were before because that’s not going to work.”
“Each individual citizen should remember that although they seem healthy, they may carry the virus home to a loved one that may not be as lucky,” cautions Ledford. “Think about your family and loved ones. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”
People aren’t just itching to go shopping and get takeout. As the pandemic drags on, furloughed employees are feeling the financial effects of months without work. “We are concerned that as we move into Phase 2, some citizens will become desperate because they don’t have a steady income, which causes some individuals to act irrational,” says Ledford. “This, in turn, causes them to do things they wouldn’t usually do. This may lead to an increase in property crimes as people attempt to find ways to put money in their pockets.”
Although we will soon be able to resume some activities we’ve been missing, COVID-19 will continue to challenge Mint Hill’s businesses and citizens for the foreseeable future. “Businesses are not going to be reopening with the same procedures that our community was accustomed to before COVID-19,” says McKinney. “The businesses that will survive and thrive are the ones that can be flexible and adaptable to new and evolving needs of our consumers. We as the community also need to have patience and flexibility as we adjust to our new normal.”
It’s a “new normal” that will likely look quite different than our lives did just three months ago when COVID-19 was just something we heard about in the news. Social distancing is here to stay for some time, and the old-fashioned handshake may be a thing of the past. It’s become commonplace to see people out and about in masks and gloves. And some people are understandably wary of going out even as restrictions are lifted.
“I think there’s still going to be a great deal of concern as far as venturing out to restaurants and resuming public life as it used to be,” says Simmons. “You’re going to see a lot more people visiting restaurants with outdoor seating areas, patios, that kind of thing. People in Mint Hill pay a lot of attention to what’s going on, so I think you’ll see a lot of masks being worn, a lot of smaller functions in the area.”
Measures like universal masking won’t be around forever, but Ledford is hopeful that some of the other habits we’ve begun practicing as a result of COVID-19 are here to stay. “Thankfully, we are all now more conscious of where potential germs are, how they spread, and how to negate their spread,” he says. “As we move beyond the threat of COVID-19, we as a society are better poised to deal with the next threat as well as flu season, which is right around the corner.”
Whatever the future brings, Mint Hill will handle it as a community. “Mint Hill is a close-knit community,” says McKinney. “Our residents are ready to support our businesses and organizations to help them thrive.”