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Amid economic fears, towns hunker down to fight coronavirus

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Fears of a local economic meltdown are quickly outpacing fears of the coronavirus in southern Nash County and its municipalities.

“We don’t have a lot of restaurants in town, I hope ours can survive this,” said Bailey Mayor Thomas Richards. His biggest concerns other than people’s health is the town’s grocery supply, survival of local businesses and the number of people out of work.

Nash County Manager Zee Lamb said the county collects around $1.3 million a month in sales tax.

“With restaurants closed, hotel vacancies up and consumer spending down, I am afraid sales tax collections will be down March through June,” Lamb said.

COVID-19 cases in North Carolina have reached triple digits, including three presumptive cases in Nash County as of Monday and an instance of community spread in Wilson County. 

In an attempt to slow the virus, Gov. Roy Cooper, a Nash County native, has banned large gatherings and ordered restaurants to limit operations to drive-thru and take out orders.

Bailey Chamber President Cecil Hawley said he’s concerned about a loss of income for local businesses.

“Even takeout is not working,” Hawley said.

Locally owned restaurants like El Paso in Bailey are staying open as long as possible, but will have to close if takeout orders dry up, said restaurant manager Jessica Landa.

“It’s been much slower than usual,” Landa said. “Some people still want to dine in and we have to turn them away. We don’t want to get in trouble.”

Lack of traffic is hurting businesses in Spring Hope as well, said Allen Barbee, past president of the Spring Hope Chamber of Commerce.

“People are afraid to go outside,” Barbee said, noting that Pine Street Market and Body Glow have closed.

Barbee is asking everyone to support small businesses and restaurants by buying local and ordering takeout.

The safety measures appear to be affecting every aspect of life.

Bailey Fire Chief Chad Bissette said his department is experiencing a slight reduction in call volume due to first responders only running high-priority medical calls.

“That limits our personnel with patient contact and reduces the chances of contracting the virus.” Bissette said. “I would urge anyone who presents with a fever, cough and flu-like symptoms to convey that to telecommunications if they choose to call 911 for a medical emergency. That allows emergency medical personnel to don proper personal protective equipment when caring for a patient.”

The Braswell Memorial Library-run library branches in Bailey, Middlesex and Spring Hope are closed until further notice.

Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools students began remote or online learning Monday. Middle and high school teachers are providing online learning with work packet option for students without access to the internet. Students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade are receiving work packets from teachers.

On Monday afternoon, Cooper announced that the state’s public schools would remain closed through May 15. 

In southern Nash County, student meals are available for pickup at elementary school in Bailey and Spring Hope from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on weekdays.  

“We are navigating uncharted waters as Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools works through our response to the COVID-19 crisis,” said Christine Catalano, the district’s executive director of communication, planning and engagement.

The license plate agency in Spring Hope — which the Spring Hope Chamber of Commerce operates under a contract with the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles — was open as late as Friday, but was awaiting instructions from the state whether to close.

“We’re fortunate that our location is larger than most license plate agencies, so we can practice social distancing while helping customers,” Barbee said.

Bailey Police Chief Steve Boraski said people’s stress level is up due to worries about the virus, restaurants limiting how they serve food and other businesses reducing hours.

“We see less people out, which is good as they are following the guidelines for social distancing,” Boraski said.

“Operations have slowed down significantly at the airport,” said Dion Viventi, director of the Rocky Mount-Wilson Regional Airport.

State Rep. Lisa Barnes, a Nash County Republican, announced emergency unemployment reforms that will allow access to unemployment benefits more quickly during the crisis.

“Those economically impacted by this crisis should reach out to the Employment Security Division for unemployment benefits as soon as possible,” Barnes said. “North Carolina’s unemployment system has disaster readiness policy and financial flexibility to support families and businesses through this emergency.”