Mar 15, 2020 - COVID

Coronavirus brings Charlotte to a halt in the span of 72 hours

Standing in front of rows of mostly empty pews, Dr. Leonzo Lynch opens his Sunday sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church with a reading from Psalms 73. Then he pauses, takes a breath, and says the words that are on the minds of the 450 or so parishioners watching him on a livestream.

“This has been a week, hadn’t it?”

It has.

Last Monday, Charlotte had zero cases of COVID-19, also known as the novel coronavirus. North Carolina had a few, but it wasn’t alarming enough to declare a state of emergency yet.

The NBA was still playing then. That Monday night, Charlotte Hornets lost in Atlanta in overtime, way back when we might’ve characterized a close loss in basketball as tough, or crushing. That was before we knew what was coming.

Few big events were canceled seven days ago. The St. Patrick’s Day pub crawl and parade were on. The Whitewater Center would still turn its water green.

Charlotte was business as usual — until suddenly it wasn’t.

News that Mecklenburg County had its first case broke on Thursday morning around 11.

Within minutes, event cancellations rolled in. Companies like Wells Fargo and the Panthers sent employees home to work remotely. Universities shut down residence halls.

ACC and NCAA basketball tournaments, springtime rites of passage in North Carolina: shut down. Conferences at the Charlotte Convention Center: no more.

“CANCELLED CANCELLED CANCELLED CANCELLED,” read the marquee outside of Bojangles’ Coliseum on Friday.

By Sunday morning, the county had four known cases; North Carolina had 32. President Donald Trump had declared a national emergency, and Governor Roy Cooper issued an executive order that closed all public schools in North Carolina for the next two weeks.

Churches like Ebenezer Baptist moved services online in response to Cooper’s order, which also included a ban on large gatherings of more than 100 people.

With Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools closed, along with many private schools, thousands of parents will start this week without childcare or without pay if they don’t work a job that can be done from home.

Grocery stores are out of toilet paper and hand sanitizer and are closing early each night so that they can catch up on restocking items from the hectic day.

Once filled with hand sanitizer, the shelves Target at Metropolitan were bare last week. A sign reads, “Due to high demand and to support all guests, we will be limiting the quantities of disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizers and hand & face wipes to 6 per guest.” Photo by Andy McMillan.

Many Charlotte businesses have told employees to work from home for two weeks, or a month, or indefinitely. Others, including 5Church and Sycamore Brewing, have outright closed.

With its annual Spring Fest and the changing weather, March is usually one of Sycamore’s busiest months, says Sarah Brigham, who owns the brewery with her husband, Justin. “We’re taking a huge financial loss here.”

There’s no insurance for stuff like this, and Sycamore is still giving its employees their full paychecks. “Quite simply,” Sarah says, “this is just a sacrifice that Justin and I felt necessary to protect the most vulnerable in the community.”

Sarah hopes this passes and Sycamore can reopen soon. In the meantime, she’s confident that closing is not only the right decision, but it’s a decision that could save lives.

It’s a decision she hopes other breweries and bars make, too. Wiping down a bar-top more frequently isn’t enough, she says.

“There have been some comments, you know, ‘Hey, this is just as bad as a cold. It’s not a big deal.’ And for the vast majority of our customers, that would absolutely be the case.

“But it’s not about us. It’s not about young healthy adults.”

Beams of green light whirl across the room and club music shakes the dance floor as hundreds of people cram into Lost & Found on Saturday night.

By all appearances, it’s a typical South End weekend. Crowds of people bounce along to the bass, wearing green T-shirts and green beads and plastic green Leprechaun hats for St. Patrick’s Day. College basketball reruns play on TVs.

“You can cancel the event, but not the turn-up,” says Eric Thompson, a 20-something Charlotte resident.

Thompson and friends ventured out despite the state’s urging that individuals practice “social distancing.” Thompson’s friend tells me she’s out because Lost & Found has good drink specials.

They’re not alone. Around 7 p.m., the bar posts this on Instagram: “PACKKKKKKKKED HOUSE!!! Been at capacity for 2 hours!” A few hours later, the post was deleted.

Owner Orlando Botero says bars aren’t included in Cooper’s large gathering ban, but he says there’s some confusion in the general public. “We received a little bit of backlash on that post, understandably so,” he tells me the next day. “So instead of having to reply to everyone or try to explain to everyone why we were open, I just took it down.”

Botero adds that it’s important for Lost & Found to remain open so that his staff can still earn a living, before it and other bars and restaurants are state-mandated to close, if that winds up happening.

Similar crowds clustered at other South End hot spots this weekend — Charlotte Beer Garden, Pins Mechanical Co., Suffolk Punch, and Gin Mill, where in a bizarre turn, guests witnessed a food truck catch on fire and then explode late Saturday.

Lost & Found was full on a Saturday night, just hours after Governor Roy Cooper issued an executive order banning large gatherings of more than 100 people. It’s not entirely clear how the order applies to bars.

It’s still unclear what type of gatherings are banned under Cooper’s executive order — the state has said that restaurants are not included, but concerts and events are.

What about bars and breweries?

“I haven’t been able to get clarity on that,” says Larken Egleston, the City Council representative for District One, which includes Dilworth and Plaza Midwood.

“Whether or not they find some loophole to the order, it’s still the same situation. You’ve got a large group of people gathered probably in a fairly confined area. It poses the same risks if it were a concert or a play,” Egleston says.

In an email from the Governor’s office Sunday evening, the state recommends that bars “only let as many people in as your establishment can accommodate while everyone remains six feet apart.”

After seeing the weekend crowds on social media, Brigham and I exchanged a couple texts.

“It makes me so sad,” she wrote.

Beyond South End, other parts of the city are quiet through the eerie weekend.

On Saturday, Queens University students pack up their belongings and sling garbage bags over their shoulders as they leave the dorms for the last time in what will probably be months.

“It stinks,” Stephanie Joyce, a freshman, tells me as she loads up the trunk of a car.

She’s on the school’s lacrosse team, which is undefeated and ranked No. 1 nationally in the NIKE/US Lacrosse Magazine Division II poll. Joyce says she’s bummed the monumental season is cut short. 

Her friends — Leighton Eber and Joey Szabo, also freshmen — give her a look, a nudge with the eyes. “What?! I’m just saying,” she says.

A few hundred feet away three students in baseball hats pose, arms overlapping each other, outside of Belk Dorm while a woman takes a photo.

Students say their goodbyes and drive away, trunks full of clothes, mattress toppers, jars of peanut butter, and packs of ramen.

queens university coronavirus
Queens University students packed up their dorms over the weekend.

There’s a lot we know about coronavirus. We know that it can be deadly for those over 65, but feel like a cold for young and healthy adults.

We know it spreads through respiratory droplets — like a cough or a sneeze without proper covering (into your elbow or a tissue). We know that we need to be washing our hands and not touching our faces.

We know there’s no vaccine and no treatment other than time.

There’s also so much we don’t know: How long will all this last? How will this affect our economy? What will happen to the children who depend on CMS for one to two meals daily?

How many Charlotteans will lose their jobs?

Their homes?

Their lives?

Maybe — hopefully — zero. But with all these unknowns, its not hard to see why some Charlotteans just needed a damn drink this weekend.

Right about now on the calendar, Charlotte should be at its best.

With sun and mild temperatures, the city is full of promise in spring. The season brings outdoor concerts at Romare Bearden Park and the Whitewater Center, where folks share a picnic blanket or dance in the grass without shoes. And in the South, it’s the season when basketball tournaments give way to the Masters give way to minor-league baseball.

It’s a season of neighborhood block parties and backyard barbecues where the biggest thing that divides us is if you prefer vinegar- or tomato-based sauce.

Someday — as soon as we can — we’ll get back to that.

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