As cases rise in Buncombe County and hospitalizations near critical levels, new restrictions are limiting restaurant capacity and mass gathering limits as officials make a final plea for residents to celebrate the holidays safely.
In an announcement Dec. 23, Buncombe County and Asheville announced a new order limiting restaurants, breweries, wineries and distilleries to 30% of their stated fire capacities, down from 50%. Indoor gatherings with those outside of one’s household have been restricted from 10 to two.
The measures take effect Jan. 2, and apply to the City of Asheville, Montreat and unincorporated areas in the county.
Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chairman Brownie Newman and Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer joined County Public Health Director Stacie Saunders and Emergency Preparedness Director Fletcher Tove in announcing the measure Dec. 23.
COVID-19 update:COVID-19: What you need to know Dec. 23 in Asheville, WNC
Saunders said cases and hospitalizations continue to grow in the county, and that “what we know is that when folks are in spaces or environments where they feel comfortable or allowed to take off masks, that’s where we see the most transmission.”
That includes restaurants, where she said clusters have been identified along with family gatherings, worksites and medical offices.
The provisions adopted Dec. 23 “are intended to reduce the situations where people gather in close proximity within crowded indoor environments and where wearing a protective face mask or face covering is either impossible or often not used,” Newman said.
The restaurant capacity limit does not affect outdoor dining, and Newman stressed that the move is not the result of restaurants not following current guidelines.
“The vast majority have worked tirelessly,” to keep people safe, he said, but “having people from different households sitting around a table together indoors, just a few feet from one another for 30 minutes or an hour or longer, without masks, is the perfect environment for the spread of COVID-19.”
The measure won’t take effect until Jan. 2, he said, to give businesses and people time to prepare, though the “vast majority of individuals and businesses” have been utilizing mask mandates.
“Unfortunately in spite of these strong efforts, COVID is spreading rapidly,” Newman said.
He also cited CDC research showing people infected with COVID-19 were twice as likely to report having been to a restaurant within the previous two weeks compared to people who avoided the virus.
Research has also shown that COVID-19 can be transmitted to people at tables more than six feet away based on building’s ventilation, he said. Research also shows reducing restaurant capacity can limit the spread of COVID-19.
“It is fair to ask ‘Why the additional focus on indoor dining?'” Newman said. “Currently there are not other business environments where it’s permissible for people to congregate without wearing masks for long periods of time.”
The other policy change, limiting indoor gatherings from people of different households to two people from 10, Newman said, is because “our health officials believe that these indoor gatherings of people from different households is a significant driver in the growth of COVID illness in Buncombe County.”
These measures are something officials do only with real regret, he added, saying “this has been a terrible year for many of our locally-owned businesses and the workers in our community. Adding to these hardships is the last thing we want to do and we recognize that these policies do create real hardships for many.”
Tove said local law enforcement will be relied on to help the county’s task force enforce the measures, driven by complaints which should be called into local law enforcement’s non-emergency lines.
Local mass gathering guidance now reduce indoor gatherings to two, he said, but outdoor gathering limits remain at 50.
Any business or sector with already-defined gathering limits like retail or event spaces will still follow that guidance, Tove said. “This new two-person limit is for social gatherings that may happen outside of those defined sectors, such as gatherings at the home or gatherings in a public space.”
Aside from those two changes, he said the county will stay in alignment with Gov. Roy Cooper’s other executive orders, including the 10 p.m. curfew that remains in effect.
Pushing for a safe holiday
Manheimer urged residents to “use extreme caution during the holidays,” and to connect with family and friends virtually or by phone this year, saying she is changing her holiday plans, too.
“I know this is hard,” she said. “In so many ways, this has been a year like no other and the way we are celebrating the holidays is also very different.”
She said her family is gathering outside, but she won’t be able to see her brother, his newborn, or her sister, having not seen her siblings since before the pandemic.
With the vaccine rolling out in Buncombe County, she asked for continued vigilance as “we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Saunders urged the same, asking residents to maintain the three Ws, and saying that “Thanksgiving showed us that folks gathering with others outside of their household did not practice the three Ws and let their guard down.”
Washing hands, wearing masks and waiting six feet apart do reduce the spread of the virus, she said.
“We have seen and continue to see that when people are in environments where they are in close proximity of one another without wearing a mask, we see exposure and spread,” Saunders said. “These simple and easy measures are so important to stop the spread as we roll out vaccine.”
On the first day of giving the vaccine, Dec. 23, the county administered 150 doses, she said, and the county will continue rolling out the vaccine based on the state’s framework.
Key takeaways, Saunders said, are “trends are not improving, celebrate the holidays within your household, and please remember that if you did get tested before the holidays, a negative test is not a guarantee. Please continue to use the three Ws.”
The number of COVID-19 tests coming back positive in Buncombe County has climbed well above the 5% local health officials aim for, now registering at 8.3% with more than 8,000 administered tests per week, Saunders said.
One month ago, on Nov. 23, the test positivity rate was 4.7%, she said.
The county is also adding about 135 cases per day on average, Saunders said, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic in Buncombe County to 8,220 cases, and 143 deaths.
According to data from the state Department of Health and Human Services, Buncombe has added 2,561 cases in December, nearly one-third of all its cases since the start of the pandemic, at 31.15%.
Hospitalization numbers are reaching critical levels at well, with Newman saying multiple doctors and nurses from Mission Hospital that he’s spoken with expressed worry that the hospital may become overwhelmed if trends continue.
Just 30 days ago, there were 81 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state’s 18 western counties, he said. Today, that number is above 200.
At Mission, he said the percentage of inpatient beds occupied with COVID-19 patients has gone from 3.9% to nearly 10%, and the number of ICU beds with COVID-19 patients has risen from 11% to 21%.
“Over the last month, we have been alarmed to watch the steep rise in not only the number of cases, but the rapid rise in the number of people becoming so sick from COVID-19 that they require hospitalization,” Newman said.
At Mission Health, the number of hospitalizations stayed steady from Dec. 22 to Dec. 23, with a total 134 lab-confirmed COVID-19 patients across five area hospitals as of 7:30 a.m. Dec. 23, confirmed spokeswoman Nancy Lindell, though that number ranks as tied for the highest number Mission has yet reported.
Of those, 114 are at Mission Hospital in Asheville, four at Angel Medical Center in Franklin, nine at Blue Ridge Regional Hospital in Spruce Pine, five at Mission Hospital McDowell in Marion and two at Transylvania Regional Hospital in Brevard.