Commentary

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.

Commentary, COVID-19

Voices from the pandemic: Unemployed and dealing with NC’s inadequate safety net

While I was going to college, my parents were losing their life’s savings. I remember coming home from the University of Oregon. Dad gave me a hug in the backyard and, near tears, said “I’ve always had a dream. I can’t see it anymore.” He was deeply depressed.

My parents had purchased a hardware store in Twin Falls, Idaho. But the franchise had given bad data. Years later, California store owners launched a class-action lawsuit and won. But my folks lived in Idaho.

I think of this as I sit unemployed in Raleigh. I moved here to be near my new granddaughter, and was confident I’d find work. Months later I took my proud self to NC Works to begin the rites and rituals of unemployment. I put a resume online. I met with a counselor who didn’t know what to do with an unemployed pastor. I’m both too educated and not educated enough.

Looking around, I observed that almost 90% of my fellow-sufferers were African American. Job opportunities were posted, but most were for minimum-wage work that barely paid the rent. With the pandemic, I’m now accompanied by 20 million unemployed. One of 10 Americans. I continue to send out resumés daily.  It is like bailing out the Titanic with a teacup.

Here’s what is infuriating. If I lived in Europe, I would be held by a safety net that included healthcare and enough money to get to the shores of this crisis. Yet, I’ve heard that people arrive at the emergency room, and their first words are “I don’t know if I can pay.” The NC Justice Center notes that 14% of North Carolinians are living in poverty, including one-in-five children. They are trying—in the best of times—to get by on less than $25,100 a year for a family of four. COVID-19 has exposed our lack of a robust safety net infrastructure.

Americans don’t mount the barricades like the French. We cough our way into emergency rooms feeling ashamed. Our “pull yourself by your bootstraps” ethic makes us think this is just our own damn fault or we must suffer in silence.

I pray that when this is over, we will emerge out of our homes and rise up like the cast of Les Miserables. I pray that the 26 million Americans without healthcare, the 40 million attempting to live on minimum wage salaries and every American without $1,000 in savings will descend upon Washington D.C. and say, “no justice, no peace.” We will no longer tolerate a country without universal health care and a living wage. We will no longer accept the inequities grown over recent decades.

My dad later told me about a vision God gave him during his darkest hour. He was driving along Route 80, and the sun was setting “and God cast an incredible wave of peace over me. I knew everything was going to be ok.”

May the unemployed find comfort, as I do, in the prophet Isaiah:

Then justice will dwell in the wilderness,
and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.
And the effect of righteousness will be peace,
and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.

              — Isaiah 32:16-17.

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