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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Wilmington mayor talks Covid-19 concerns: small businesses, shelter in place, stimulus, and more [Free read]

The City of Wilmington is once again facing a challenge in regards to its short-term rental policies (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)
The City of Wilmington is working to adapt to the ‘new normal’ amid a global pandemic. (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)

WILMINGTON — Much of the response to the Covid-19 epidemic (and the debate over it) has taken place at the state and national level. But local government has a role, too

Port City Daily asked Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo to weigh in on the current state of the crisis, including how seriously people are taking the disease, what concerns he’s heard from residents, how communication has been like with local, state, and federal partners, and the shadow of a lock-down order, which has hanged over the region for weeks.

Saffo also addressed how the government will move forward — providing public services, preparing a budget, and so on — while restrictions on public gatherings remain in place.

First of all, how do things stand? How’s the city doing so far?

Well, obviously, this is a huge disruption to our citizens and to this community — to this state, to this country. I mean, we’ve never seen anything like it in modern history. I’ve heard commentary from some people that were here during World War Two; there was obviously some disruptions and things that were had curfews and whatnot, but to see a whole country that is kind of in the same boat right now is historic. This is a pandemic. It’s a public health crisis.

And I think the sooner that we adhere to what the public health officials are telling us at the local level, state level, and the federal level, I think the sooner we get back on our feet.

What concerns are you hearing, as Mayor?

I have obviously a lot of concerns that have been shared with me by small business owners about their businesses. Some may not be able to make it. They’re asking: ‘what’s it gonna look like when we’re out of this?’ And that’s going to be a serious concern of ours when this thing finally passes.

I have concerns from individual citizens that may not have access to transportation and food and how we’re going to help them. I’ve got concerns from mothers and fathers about their school-age kids. You know: ‘when are the schools going to be reopened?

So, you know, so you can imagine, it runs the gamut.

What can the city do, at this point?

There’s a lot of people that are working on this at the local government level, at the state government level, and at the federal government level. We’re all trying to coordinate together to try to get as much information as we can out to the public as quickly as we can. And just really asking our citizens to really adhere to what they’re saying and what they’re sharing with us. We all have an individual role to play here and the individual role here right now is the only defense that we have. We have to have that public spacing. Wash your hands. I don’t want people to panic, but I do want them to be vigilant.

Have you seen people in the Wilmington area take this more seriously?

I have. I think in the beginning, I think there was a lot of chatter, and there was a lot of commentary. I’m sure you’ve seen it on social media and you’ve heard it where people say, ‘what’s the big deal? This is just like a flu, and if you get it you’re gonna recover pretty quickly.’ And I think in the beginning, I think there was a lot of that lackadaisical attitude. But I think as this thing has kind of progressed, people are taking it much more seriously. I’m beginning to see a lot more commentary where people are really asking those that are making those kind of comments to back off, that this is a serious issue.

I think this is coming all the way from the President, to the Governor, to the local levels. Even though we might have political disagreements, I think they’re all kind of singing from the same hymn book, you know, kind of singing from the same page of music. Nobody wants to shut down the country. But obviously, this is not normal. This is obviously a historic moment in our community — in our city, in our country’s history. So I think people are taking it much more seriously than they were before.

Is the city considering instituting its own curfew, or is it looking to Governor Roy Cooper for guidance on that? What’s next in terms of new restrictions?

Well, I think the governor has been very measured. I think he’s been moving very slowly, but methodically and deliberately toward slowly shutting down certain types of business where people are gathering, taking advice from his Health and Human Services Secretary [Dr. Mandy Cohen], as well as the CDC.

I think that we may be moving towards a quarantine in place. Obviously, [Cooper] hasn’t come out and said that. But you know, when you’re shutting down the beaches, and you’re shutting down health clubs, and you’re shutting down nail salons and hair salons and restaurants and bars, and when you slowly get to a point where you’re only going to allow for essential-type businesses, like grocery stores and pharmacies that give us the basic supplies that we’re going to need to live. And we’ll adhere to what the governor and our local health officials are telling us moving forward. And we plan to enforce those laws as they’re passed down to us.

The financial recovery from this situation will obviously be bigger than local government — but what Wilmington (and Wilmingtonians) do to help?

The thing right now, as long as there is the opportunity for us to go out and purchase food from restaurant owners, either pickup or delivery, I think the more that we can do, that helps those business owners. I mean, we have to take into consideration social distancing, but we also want you to support the small business because they desperately need it at this point in time, probably more than ever.

But when we get on the other side of this, they’re gonna need our help more than any other time — probably in our history. We’re going to really come out here to support our small business owners, because they’re really going to need it. They’re really going to take the brunt of this. I mean, we thought in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, how many small businesses that we lost.

We’re all looking to see what will be in this latest stimulus package, which I think is going to be one of many. And, hopefully, it’ll get some of them over the hump. But we all have a duty, I think, and responsibility to try to help these small business owners when we get on the other side of this. It’s going to be critically important to this community because we need that small business community to thrive. And they are really taking it right now.

How’s the communication between Wilmington and the state and federal government been?

I feel that it’s been fairly good. I think that the Governor has been keeping us informed. We’ve got a conference call with him today. We’ve also been in touch with the North Carolina League of Municipalities as well as our own local government liaisons with the state and with the federal government. We’ve obviously had contact with Senator Burr’s office, Senator Tillis’ office, and Congressman David Rouzer’s office. I spoke directly to Burr and Rouzer.

Obviously we’ve been adhering to what the New Hanover County Health Department has been saying we’ve been listening to a lot of words head of Regional Medical has been sharing with us. Of course, [NHRMC Executive Vice President] Dr. [Phillip] Brown has been very outspoken on some of the issues out there. We’ve been also tried to be in lockstep with the county officials, our New Hanover County Commissioners, so we’re all kind of singing from the same page of music here.

There’s also the beach towns — we’ve been in touch with the three beach mayors, and their councils, whatever we can do to help them and they can help us we want to do it. Last week when they shut down the beaches, I thought that was the right call to make. I know it’s a tough call on their behalf but they were getting a lot of calls from their citizens concerned about public gathering and a lot of people just coming down there from other parts of the state that may have been infected with Coronavirus and bringing it here. I think they made the right call from a public health perspective.

Speaking to federal officials, what did you say?

My concern as a mayor, based on what I saw back in the 2008 financial crisis, was that a lot of people complained that in the aftermath a lot of the stimulus money went to the big corporations and big companies, to the banks and the financial institutions and Wall Street, that it didn’t make it down the mainstream.

And I just wanted to share with [Burr, Tillis, and Rouzer] that whatever package comes out of Washington, that it go to small business owners and people on the street and people that are going to be unemployed — that’s where we desperately need it. They seem to all be in lockstep saying that, that they believe that that was the way that the Congress was going to enact it.

Obviously, I’m not a federal official. And I’m sure there’s a lot of details in that sausage that’s is being made up there. But I asked that we get a lot more stimulus to the local people and the people that are being laid off and the small business owners first — before we start sending it to these larger corporations. Or else I think there’ll be a significant backlash because this is going to be a significant moment in the community and in this country. No doubt it may be the biggest one ever.

Are you homebound? And how is local government dealing with that?

I am homebound. I’ve been trying to stay as isolated as possible. I go in when I have to go. I do sign you know, some papers and ordinances and different things when they need me. We do try to keep our social distances.

So, you know, we’re looking at our electronic meetings, and how that would work. We’re going to adhere to whatever the guidance is — so if that means we can’t have more than 10 staff members together, we’ll have to work on how that is going happen. I mean, obviously, our city staff has been working on that around the clock on and there’s a certain statute in regards to open meetings law that we’re specifically talking about.

We’re also trying to also adhere to the governor’s order from yesterday that that that directed us to exercise our responsibility as local governments to continue to provide the basic services of police, fire, trash pickup. There will be some limitations as to what we’re going to be doing as a government moving forward, being that we may be in this thing for three, four or five months. I hope not. But if we are, you know, there are other things that we have to continue to do as a local government. We still have a budget we have to work through, you know, we have to keep the wheels of government moving at the local level — which, as you know, that’s really where the rubber meets the road.

What else would you like to get across to the residents in and around Wilmington about dealing with Covid-19

You know, I one thing I do want to make certain that we share with our citizens is that as this thing progresses, there’ll be a tendency in a week or two, or maybe even three, that people start putting down their guards. People might say, ‘I’ve had enough of this, I haven’t gotten it, I think I’m gonna go out I’m gonna do my thing.’ And I just want to make everybody aware of the fact that this thing is very contagious, highly contagious. And with that, the best thing you can do is to be safe, be healthy, keep your family healthy and safe and keep your neighbors healthy and safe because our public health officials are extremely concerned.

If a lot of us get this virus and if we do need hospitalization, we are limited in the amount of resources that we have at NHRMC, which serves a seven-county region of about half a million people. I think that message is just going to have to constantly be drummed out by the local officials, to our citizens. That this is, you know, we’re in a dangerous time right now, we’ve got to get through this. It could be three months, it could be four months, there will be a time when we will get out of this. But, you know, we’ve got to be really vigilant for the next couple of weeks, until we see what this thing looks like.

You can find additional information about the city’s response to Covid-19 here; the page includes how individual departments are adjusting to new working conditions as well as information for residents.

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001

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