Every single thing about it sucks.
It sucks for the businesses that have shut down. It sucks for the people who are out of work. It sucks for the artists who are missing performances or exhibitions. It sucks for the (ahem) newspapers that are forgoing ad revenue. It sucks for the parents who have to deal with their kids all day while they’re working from home. It sucks for everyone who likes getting a bite to eat or hanging out in a bar or going to see a band or enjoying the company of others or simply not being broke.
But here we are, in a state of emergency, everything closed, the stock market in the crapper, a recession lurking, mass gatherings banned, instructed to avoid groups of more than 10, watching the number of cases and deaths grow daily, now being told that this morass could last until July or August.
And it all happened so quickly. When we woke up 15 days ago, North Carolina didn’t have any coronavirus cases.
Perhaps you’ve read up on the coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19. Or maybe you haven’t had a chance; it’s been a hell of a week, after all. Either way, you probably have questions. Actually, we know you do. Many of the 16 questions in this package come directly from our readers.
We did our best to find answers.
Having answers won’t make things suck any less. But you might learn a little bit about why everything sucks, and, hey, that’s something. Right?
1. What is the coronavirus? Where did it come from?
There isn’t just one coronavirus. There are hundreds of them, common among pigs, camels, cats, and bats. Since 1965, we’ve known that some can make the jump from animals to humans, where they typically cause upper-respiratory-tract infections. The first four tended to cause only mild illness and are often mistaken for the common cold. But the three that have spilled over to humans in the 21st century have caused much more dangerous diseases: Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, appeared in 2002 and lasted until 2004; it infected more than 8,000 and killed almost 800. Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, emerged in 2012, afflicting about 2,500 people and causing 861 deaths. COVID-19 arose from a novel coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2.
Its origin isn’t clear. Doctors first began taking note of the new respiratory infection in Wuhan, China, in late December, with many of the cases stemming from individuals who had visited a seafood market. That led scientists to believe the coronavirus came from something sold there. Lately, however, researchers have traced cases further back, to individuals with no connection to the market. The first known case, in fact, is a 55-year-old in Hubei province, whose case dates to November 17. Scientists believe the coronavirus originated in a bat and then jumped to another animal—perhaps the exotic pangolin, a scaly anteater whose scales area delicacy in China—which passed it to humans.
2 What does COVID-19 feel like? How do I know if I have it? How can I avoid it?
COVID-19 is characterized by fever, fatigue, and a dry cough, as well as headache, shortness of breath, aches and pains, nasal congestion, and sore throat in some patients. Most of the time, these symptoms are mild; in fact, some infected people don’t have any symptoms at all. About one in six people, however, becomes seriously ill and has trouble breathing. This is particularly common among older people. In some cases, COVID-19 can lead to pneumonia.
In other words, it’s not unlike influenza, which is why you have to have a negative flu test before you can be tested for the coronavirus (see below). The primary difference between the two is that, while they’re transmitted in similar ways—through droplets in the air from an infected person coughing, sneezing, or talking—the coronavirus is more contagious. Like the flu, the coronavirus can likely be spread days before symptoms appear; unlike the flu, coronavirus might be spread in an airborne manner, meaning tiny droplets containing the virus might linger in the air and cause disease after the infected person leaves the area. In addition, because the novel coronavirus is, well, novel, humans have no immunity to it, nor have we developed antivirals or a vaccine.
You’re probably tired of hearing this, but the best way to avoid the coronavirus is to practice good hygiene: Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and/or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer; avoid touching your face; cough and sneeze into your elbow instead of your hand; stay home if you feel ill; clean and disinfect surfaces that you regularly touch daily; and avoid close contact with people who are sick. Meanwhile, social distancing—deliberately increasing the physical space between you and others—will help slow the virus’s spread. (More on that in a second.)
Soap, in case you’re wondering, works so well against pathogens because of its molecular structure: Each molecule has a hydrophilic head that bonds with water and a hydrophobic tail that sheds it, instead preferring oils and fats. Coronaviruses have molecules wrapped in lipid membranes. When you wash in soap and water, you surround the pathogens on your skin with soap molecules; when the soap molecules’ hydrophobic tails try to flee the water, they wedge themselves into the viruses’ lipid membranes and tear them apart. Hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content similarly kill viruses by destabilizing them at the molecular level, but they do not remove microorganisms from the skin, as you do when you rinse your hands after washing.
3. How many people have this thing? How many have been tested for it? For that matter, how many tests are available?
As of Monday night, more than 181,300 people around the world had confirmed diagnoses of COVID-19, according to the Johns Hopkins Institute’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering tracker, and more than 7,100 had died. In the U.S., there were 4,464 confirmed cases and 78 deaths. As of Monday morning, the U.S. had 3,500 cases and 65 deaths, so things seem to be accelerating, though that increase could be due to more widespread testing.
North Carolina had 45 confirmed cases as of Tuesday morning—15 of which are in Wake County, the most in the state—one hospitalization, and, fortunately, no known deaths from COVID-19. The state has no documented occurrences of community spread, or transmission from one member of a community to another. It’s very unlikely that none exists, however. More likely, a lack of testing means we simply don’t know about it.
As of Monday, 369 people had been tested by the state lab, according to state Senator Jeff Jackson, and more—though we don’t know how many—had been tested by academic or private labs. Currently, the state lab has the capacity to perform about 1,300 more tests; the non-state facilities can likely do many more.
To qualify for a test at a state lab, you need to have a fever of 100.4 degrees, shortness of breath or a dry cough, and a negative flu test. Even then, your doctor has to contact the county department of health for permission, which may be denied because there aren’t enough tests available. You can get a non-state test from a commercial lab or hospital that has the capability to perform it with a doctor’s order.
4. What’s the point of social distancing?
You’ve probably heard the phrase “flattening the curve.” The idea is this: If we don’t take preventative measures, including closing everything down and isolating ourselves, the coronavirus will spread so fast that we’ll overload the system. The number of cases will spike, hospitals will get overcrowded, doctors will become sick, there won’t be enough ventilators—the epidemic will burn out faster, but a lot more people will die. With social isolation and proper hygiene measures, the epidemic might last longer, but it will spread in a slower and more manageable manner, and our medical system should be able to keep up.
Without strict social distancing and the quarantining of those with COVID-19, according to a new report from British researchers, the U.S. could suffer 2.2 million deaths from the coronavirus this year. With quarantining alone, the number of deaths is likely to fall in the high hundreds of thousands, if not more.
5. What exactly has closed?
On Saturday, Governor Cooper closed K-12 public schools for two weeks and banned mass gatherings of more than 100 people—including festivals, concerts, religious services, and sporting events—for a month. The week before that, Duke University closed its campus, moving to remote learning. UNC-Chapel Hill did, too, followed by the rest of the UNC System. Some restaurants closed, while others transitioned to takeout or delivery-only service.
Over the weekend, a handful of bars began to shut down, as well. They were getting ahead of the inevitable. On Tuesday, Cooper announced that he was closing bars and restaurants as well, though restaurants could continue to offer takeout and delivery options.
6. Why did everything start shutting down after only a dozen people in North Carolina got sick?
Because we could see what was coming, and because we know that pandemics like this spread exponentially. As Megan McArdle explained in The Washington Post last week, “When something dangerous is growing exponentially, everything looks fine until it doesn’t. In the early days of the Wuhan epidemic, when no one was taking precautions, the number of cases appears to have doubled every four to five days.”
Right now, the spread of coronavirus in the U.S. closely tracks where Italy was about two weeks ago. Italy, of course, is now completely shut down, with overwhelmed hospitals and a sharply climbing death toll. If we waited too long to act, the same would happen here.
7. If we’re closing down every confined space, what about people behind bars?
Indeed, jails notoriously incubate and amplify infectious diseases. Each day, about 600,000 people, most of whom haven’t been convicted of a crime, are held in one of 3,000 local jails across the country, often in the kinds of overcrowded, unsanitary conditions that pathogens love. What’s more, prisoners are coming and being released regularly, bringing in viruses from the outside and taking them out from the inside.
The Durham County Sheriff’s Office has responded to the threat by suspending in-person and even video visitation. Visits will now have to take place remotely, which requires “visitors” to fill out an online form and download an app (preferably on an Android device). In addition, the DCSO says it will begin medically screening all new prisoners for symptoms of the coronavirus and quarantine new inmates for 24 hours before moving them to the general population. Inmates will be screened again on their way out.
The Wake County Sheriff’s Office’s prescreening plan involves asking new detainees if they’ve recently traveled outside of the U.S. or been in contact with someone known to have COVID-19. The Wake jail has four quarantine cells to house infected inmates, and, as of Friday, the WCSO said it was considering limiting jail visits.
On Friday, Governor Cooper announced that visits to all state prisons were being suspended, save for legal and pastoral visitors (who will have to be screened by medical personnel). Also, newly arrived offenders will be screened, and those will symptoms will be isolated. To offset the suspension of visitation, the Department of Public Safety said it would allow inmates to make more phone calls.
8. Now that the universities have closed, what will happen to contractors, such as the food-service staff? What’s going to happen to international students who don’t have anywhere to go?
Earlier this week, Duke’s contract dining workers sent a letter to the university’s president demanding to know how the university plans to fulfill its obligations to them, including furlough pay and a promise that their positions will be reinstated when operations resume. In hurricanes and snow events, the workers noted, they’ve been treated as “mandatory staff.” At UNC-Chapel Hill, Carolina Dining Services employees are contracted through Aramark Corporation. The university says it is paying employees for remote work when possible and providing paid administrative leave for up to 30 days for those who can’t work remotely, but for those contractors, it’s up to their employer. Aramark did not return the INDY’s phone call seeking comment.
Duke’s international students can return to their home countries and finish classes online. If they choose to stay in North Carolina and live on campus, Duke’s website instructs them to fill out a housing registration form and says a staff member can follow up. Students can also live off-campus, of course, but they need to notify the university. UNC-Chapel Hill hasn’t released specific guidelines for its international students.
On Tuesday, the UNC System ordered students off of its campuses and reduced housing and dining options. N.C. State told students that if they have no place else to go, they should fill out a Special Circumstances Housing Request Form.
9. Last week, when the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic, it praised China and South Korea for their containment efforts. What have those countries done that others haven’t?
While China has by far the most cases of novel coronavirus, it has reduced the number of new cases by an astounding 90 percent through a system of vigorous testing and rigid isolation that might not be possible in a less authoritarian country. It wasn’t just that Hubei province—with nearly 60 million people—was put on lockdown mere weeks after the new respiratory illness emerged. It was that China was willing to do whatever was necessary to contain the epidemic, to the point of placing hundreds of millions of people in isolation and wrecking its economy. Chinese officials took the temperatures of those entering government buildings, apartments, and offices. Anyone with a fever was dispatched to a mobile coronavirus clinic, each of which could diagnose hundreds of cases a day. Even those with mild infections with quarantined away from their families in mass isolation centers inside stadiums.
South Korea wasn’t so draconian, but it did put in place the world’s most aggressive coronavirus testing regime, assessing some 10,000 people a day, a total of about 250,000 by Monday. With the widespread testing, the Koreans tracked the movements of those who tested positive to an almost granular level—e.g., where they sat in a movie theater—and posted them (without their names) on the internet.
10. How long is this going to last?
We don’t know. But it won’t be over as soon as you’d like. On Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said life wouldn’t get back to normal for “several weeks to a few months for sure.” On Monday, President Trump—who’d heretofore downplayed the coronavirus threat—went further, saying the crisis might last until July or August.
11. How will the coronavirus affect the census?
Yes and no. Come hell or high water, the government will complete its constitutionally mandated headcount, even if that means sending people to your doorstep in protective gear.
North Carolina’s census team has been instructed to work from home for the time being, says state census liaison Bob Coats. Surveys have already gone out en masse through the postal service. North Carolina did not plan to start its ground game until early April; that’s been pushed back two weeks.
Residents should be receiving surveys in the mail. To make everyone’s life easier, just fill it out and put it back in the mail, or go to my2020census.com to complete it. The more people do this, the fewer census workers might be exposed to the virus later.
While some universities have already submitted counts of their students, others had to shut down before completing the survey. Students who are now staying off-campus are asked to respond as if they’re still living in their dorm, Coats says.
State and federal leaders are still discussing what precautions may be necessary to ensure the safety of census employees, who typically go door-to-door in neighborhoods where they have not received responses.
“What we don’t know is, will these people have things like masks? Will they be wearing gloves? I think the Census Bureau is still looking for guidance on that nationally,” Coats says.
12. Is there any way the coronavirus could affect the November elections?
We don’t know. Following the cancellation of state primaries in Georgia and Louisiana, local elections officials are scrambling to figure out how to conduct a safe election if we’re still in the throes of the pandemic come November.
Step one has been to give State Board of Elections executive director Karen Brinson Bell special emergency powers during the crisis, which will allow her to change protocols as needed. Bell immediately announced that she would extend the reporting period for precincts by a month and add extra precautions in the event of a recount. Elections employees have also been given the option to work from home, and board members have been encouraged to meet via phone.
The most pressing issue is the runoff in the 11th Congressional District, scheduled for May 12. Right now, elections officials aren’t sure what to do; a task force will meet on the subject this week. No matter what, absentee-by-mail ballots need to be sent to voters by March 28 and received by the the board of elections May 5.
However, relying on the postal service could be a logistical nightmare, says Gerry Cohen, a member of the Wake County Board of Elections, requiring a gargantuan amount of paperwork and additional staff. The easier path would be to delay the election, but that won’t happen without congressional and judicial approval, which is unlikely.
13. Why is the stock market imploding?
Are we going to have a recession? On Monday, the S&P 500 fell nearly 12 percent—the latest very bad day in a string of very bad days, and the market’s worst day since 1987. In addition, Goldman Sachs forecast that GDP would contract by 5 percent in the second quarter, something we haven’t seen since 2008. So the short answer is yes, we’re likely headed toward a recession.
The pandemic started in China, the world’s manufacturing hub, which means it wrecked supply chains, making it more difficult to get things made and on shelves. But the bigger issue is demand. Global spending is slowing, so businesses are throttling back investment. More and more, they’ll furlough or lay off workers, which will lead to even less spending. And even among the still-gainfully employed, social distancing will lead to less spending, as well. In a consumer-based economy like ours, that makes a downturn all but inevitable.
14. Do we know how much money these closures and cancellations are costing the local economy?
Without knowing how long the crisis is going to last, it’s hard to calculate the economic carnage. But here are a few broad data points.
Last year, according to the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, food and drink sales accounted for $267 million in the downtown area alone. April is the second-busiest month of the year for that sector, after September Downtown Durham, meanwhile, counts 168 restaurants and bars serving 230,000 people who live nearby, a lynchpin of the $134 million in private investment the urban core saw in 2019, according to Downtown Durham Inc.
In its 2018–19 season, the Durham Performing Arts Center sold out 163 of 240 events and brought in more than 536,000 guests. DPAC pumped nearly $3 million into city coffers. According to its most recent tax filings, the Carolina Theatre brought in more than $3.1 million in revenue in 2017, as well as about $3.4 million in 2016.
In Raleigh, last year’s inaugural Dreamville Festival accounted for almost $4 million in economic impact and more than $233,000 in local tax revenue. That event will now be postponed until August. The much larger International Bluegrass Music Association, scheduled for September, generates about $61 million in economic impact, according to the DRA.
Assuming the pandemic abates by the end of summer, both of those events, as well as Hopscotch, should be good to go. But the city is going to suffer regardless. May, June, and April—in that order—are Raleigh’s third, fourth, and fifth most lucrative months for the kinds of downtown events that are now prohibited, following September and October.
15. What’s the government doing about that?
With most recessions, the answer is to stimulate the economy by flooding it with money, through some combination of tax cuts and direct government spending. After the Great Recession hit, for example, Congress responded with both the stimulus and bailouts for banks and the auto industry. In addition, the Federal Reserve typically lowers interest rates to make it easier to borrow money. Over the weekend, the Fed lowered the benchmark rate to zero, effectively maxing out its leverage; the fix has to come from fiscal, not monetary, policy.
But this recession is a little different. What’s changed isn’t that people don’t have money to spend; it’s that they have fewer places to spend it when they’re being told to isolate at home. Giving them more money isn’t going to change that equation. But there’s a ripple effect when enough people don’t take vacations or business trips or eat out or go to the movies. Airline attendants (and then airport employees) get laid off, and they don’t have money to spend; hospitality workers lose shifts, and they don’t have money to spend. The less they spend, the bigger the ripple.
On Tuesday, the Trump administration was set to propose an $850 billion stimulus package, with about $50 billion going to bail out the airline industry, $100 billion to fund paid sick leave for affected workers, some unspecified assistance for small businesses and their employees, and the rest funneled into the economy via tax cuts, likely a cut to the payroll tax.
The topline amount is larger than the stimulus the Obama administration pushed through Congress in 2009—and Republicans vehemently opposed. Here, the administration is likely to run into opposition in the Democratic House over bailing out airlines and offering tax cuts rather than giving direct assistance to workers, health care providers, schools, and seniors. Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer’s $750 billion counter would expand unemployment insurance and Medicaid funding, halt evictions and foreclosures, invest in health care, and provide loan assistance.
After all, payroll tax cuts only help if you have a job—and if you have a job, but there’s still nowhere to spend your money, they won’t stimulate the economy very much. In North Carolina, the General Assembly is working remotely until at least April 1, and lawmakers won’t be back in session until April 28; there’s no constitutional or legal provision that addresses casting votes remotely. House Speaker Tim Moore has signaled that he’s opened to some kind of stimulus, though he hasn’t said what.
Democratic state Senator Jeff Jackson wants to look at tax cuts, ensuring that people can access cash immediately, and making coronavirus tests are free. He says General Assembly should go into a special session as soon as possible.
The state has also put a 30-day hold on most court proceedings, including evictions and foreclosures. Locally, the Orange Water and Sewer Authority and the cities of Durham and Raleigh have announced that they won’t disconnect water for nonpayment during the crisis.
16. Besides limiting the spread of the virus, what can we do to help people in our community?
Organizations like TABLE and the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina have increased their food distribution efforts while laying out rigorous cautionary health measures to ensure that food is delivered safely to those who need it most.
You can also be community-focused when getting food for yourself. Don’t stockpile; buying more than you need can cause shortages. In particular, avoid buying low-in-stock WIC-eligible products—once those products are gone, people who rely on WIC go home empty-handed. Service workers are especially vulnerable during the mass closings, and a GoFundMe called Creating Social Distance: Service Industry Workers has been set up to help Triangle-area employees stay afloat. For every $10,000 raised, the organization will donate $100 to 100 service workers. You can support local restaurants that are still open directly by ordering takeout and tipping generously, or by purchasing gift cards now to use when they reopen.
In addition, musicians and artists will be hard-hit by closures and canceled shows, too. Donating to a relief fund or becoming an arts sustainer are obvious ways to help, but doing little things like buying merch or not asking for refunds will help, as well.
At the end of the day, this pandemic is something we’ll have to fight together. Social distancing is good, but feelings of loneliness are bad. Check in on your loved ones, offer to help elderly neighbors get groceries, and—this is important—take stock of your own mental health.
Comment on this story at email@example.com.
UPDATE: We initially misstated the absentee ballot deadline for the second primary in US House District 11. The INDY regrets the error.
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