Phase One? Phase Two? NC reopening needs a little more clarity and enforcement

In fifth grade, I was chosen to be a Student Guard on the school bus. It was a coveted role. We wore badges and could tell the other children to sit down, be quiet and behave. God knows what administrator gave me such authority. I was a bossy big sister who skillfully inflicted fear. My bus was the quietest in the school district, I’m now ashamed to say.

I thought of this when I heard that Gov. Roy Cooper has given out the details for moving forward into “Phase One” of North Carolina’s reopening plan. This afternoon at 5 p.m. we get to peek out of our lockdown homes into a new world. The distinction between “essential” and “non-essential” business will change. Frankly, I found this distinction confusing and even comical. While we couldn’t get a haircut, we were able to purchase boatloads of wine and spirits with impunity.

The current situation has been a mishmash of safe practices. I found comfort at Whole Foods where the blue lines for social distancing extended to the sidewalk, and masked workers allowed customers in a few at a time. Every cart handle was sanitized. But then I walked into Food Lion, where I felt I was taking my life in my hands.

The worst experience was at Lowe’s. The parking lot was full. There were no masks, no one counting the customers. The store tipped its hat to social distancing with a few blue taped lines near the cashiers. If I were an “unessential business owner” or small retailer whose business was shut down, I would have blown a gasket to see the full parking lot and the lack of any COVID-19 safe practices.

Gov. Cooper, you tell us that Phase One allows “retail businesses to open at 50% capacity while observing physical distancing guidelines, extra cleaning protocols and screening employees.” Oh, really? If there was no equitable enforcement during the shelter-in-place phase, what comfort do we have that Phase One (much less Phase Two, whenever it actually goes into effect) will be any better?

I fear that the guidelines are inequitable, confusing and useless. They have no teeth. I worry that North Carolina has been cowed by those who confuse public health with the loss of freedom. All I want is a fair playing field for businesses big and small. I want the same public health practices at Whole Foods, Food Lion and Lowe’s. I want standards for everyone, so no one is confused whether COVID-19 is deadly. Finally, I want our sacrificial weeks of lockdown to not go to waste.

So please give some enforcement to these recommendations. Barring that, I may need to dig up my Student Guard badge and–to boot–my clerical collar. I will stand at Lowe’s like a crazy clergy sheriff. I’ll be ever-so-bossy as I say: “Wear masks!” “Only 40 customers allowed inside.” It worked in fifth grade. Maybe it will work today.

Rev. Rebecca Kuiken is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has pastored numerous churches around the country. She lives in Raleigh.

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