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Haywood takes steps to open businesses safely

Dr. Mark Jaben. Dr. Mark Jaben.

Since the Coronavirus Pandemic began in earnest in Haywood County in mid-March, emergency physician Dr. Mark Jaben has been the face of the county’s response, so much so that he’s now regularly stopped on the area’s hiking trails by strangers exclaiming, “Hey, you’re the guy from YouTube!”

Jaben’s YouTube briefings on the pandemic, as well as his appearances before county commissioners, have been informative and prolific, but ultimately everything the county is or isn’t able to do is guided by President Donald Trump’s policies and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper’s policies. 

Per Gov. Cooper’s three-phase reopening plan, the state has now progressed through phase 1 and into phase 2 — by some accounts too soon, and by others, too late. 

Regardless, businesses of almost every stripe are now open in some form or fashion, so Cooper’s launched the  “Count on Me NC” campaign, which offers online training modules designed to help businesses recognize and manage the risks associated with commercial activity during the pandemic. 

Although the five modules delineate best practices for all businesses and have separate, special sections geared towards restaurant owners and operators, back-of-house food service employees like chefs and front-of-house workers like servers, there remains one glaring omission: customers. 

That’s led to the “We Are a Safe Space” initiative here locally. Within that initiative, there’s a special checklist that will let customers know what businesses are doing to keep them safe, while also letting customers know how they can help businesses keep them safe. 

Jaben’s already done a few Zoom meetings with the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce and the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority regarding the initiative, and specifically focused on two of Haywood County’s biggest economic sectors, retail and lodging. 

Briefings on restaurants will come next week, just as most restaurants, breweries and distilleries are reopening with special restrictions under clarified guidance issued by Cooper on May 22. 

The next day, Jaben spoke with The Smoky Mountain News about the flow of misinformation, current COVID-19 cases and how businesses, in conjunction with customers, can safely serve locals as well as the tourists that drive Haywood County’s economy. 

The Smoky Mountain News: As you’ve been going about your work during this pandemic, which do you think is worse — the pandemic itself or the misinformation that’s being spread so widely?

Dr. Mark Jaben: I think the pandemic for sure because it’s the pandemic that really carries the risk to all of us. The question for all of us, I think, is how we’re going to respond to that. At what level do we think the risk is enough that an individual chooses to act or not act? The fact of the matter is, we could make all the recommendations that we want, but we can’t make people do things. 

The varying degrees of misinformation just compound the difficulty for a person to really judge what their level of risk is, and therefore what they’re willing to do.

I think in Haywood County, we’ve tried to be putting out a consistent message to people. What’s really been a challenge is that the information from Haywood County may be consistent, but there’s statewide information, there’s national information, there’s the conspiracy theorists and the rumor mill. 

SMN: It’s interesting, how all this complicates people’s ability to assess their own risk level. What have you seen out there that you think is probably the most damaging?

MJ: The most egregious thing for me is, the way our minds work we look at a situation and the more uncertainty there is in the situation, the more we try to connect the dots into a narrative that fits that situation. The most dangerous thing out of all of this is honestly people’s willingness to accept information that just confirms their current narrative, and either their unwillingness or inability to acknowledge what really is going on. 

SMN: So what is really going on? The HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996] guidelines that protect people’s privacy are also a bit frustrating, because it’s only natural as a human being to want to know who’s been afflicted, how they got it, where they got it, where they went before they knew they had it. 

MJ: In Haywood County the overwhelming majority of our cases have been people under 45 or 50, which is the age range that tends to do the best with the virus. That may very well explain why we haven’t really had any hospitalizations, we haven’t had any people on ventilators, we haven’t had any deaths. 

I know a lot of people have said, “Hey, what is this worry about? You know, people get over it, what are we worried about here?” 

I’ll tell you, I was on the phone this afternoon with a friend of ours who’s a critical care doctor in Asheville and they were telling me about who is in the hospital there, or on the ventilator. I wish that I could tell you more, but that would be a HIPAA violation. What I will tell you is that at least two of the people on the ventilator right now are people under the age of 40. 

As soon as that spreads outside of the under-45 population, and it starts to get some of the older folks in the community, now that changes that equation. 

We had the case of a couple of people who went for their pre-surgery screenings. They were asymptomatic. They did not honor the fact that they were told to quarantine until the results came back. They came back positive. In the meantime, they had been to work, they had been to various places around the community, and that kind of lets the horse out of the barn, so to speak. 

This week, we [in Haywood County] now have two or three people testing positive who are older than 70, with underlying health issues. That’s the first that we’ve seen of that. So that’s worrisome. 

SMN: With North Carolina now moving to phase 2 of Gov. Cooper’s three-phase plan, what’s the best way to ensure a quick and safe economic recovery in Haywood County?

MJ: So now the rules of commerce forever have been changed. 

You have a product or a service that a customer thinks is valuable enough to pay for, and the transaction is made. In the old days — I’ll call it B.C., “Before COVID” — nobody worried much about safety. 

Now, number one as a business owner, you have to provide a safe space or nobody’s going to come in there, and number two, staff who work there need to be protected, but they also need to be part of providing a safe space. Customers obviously need to be protected, but you need the customers to help you provide a safe space. 

All businesses have a part to play in the community being a safe space because frankly, if your community has a reputation of not being a safe space, people aren’t going to come to the community. So I think business owners have an interest in each other doing their part to make the community a safe space. 

SMN: And what is this community doing to let people know that Haywood County is a safe space?

MJ: I think people going out to businesses, going out to restaurants, I’m all for it if we’re careful. If in our carefulness, we’re successful, then hey, I’m all for that. I think that’s great. But we have to be on the ball. We have to keep our eyes on the prize, and the “We Are a Safe Space” initiative is an opportunity for the business community to really help the public health community so we can protect health and keep the economy open. 

SMN: And what does the “We Are a Safe Space” initiative entail? 

MJ: We created what we call the CCC — the Contract to Contain COVID. It is a check sheet that would help a business owner design their business in a way that fits within a framework of those new rules. What we would like to see is for people to adopt that, post it at their front door, or front window, so it becomes something that the customers can see. 

Also contained in that are expectations for what the customer could do to help. When businesses in the community adopt this sort of approach, then it becomes important for everybody in the community to adopt that, and so in that way, each business helps each other business to do their part. It helps to get the customers on board to do their part and lets people know that this is a place you can come into where we can transact business in a safe way. 

I would emphasize to people that this is an opportunity to be responsible to the community, to be responsible to your place of work, to be responsible to your family, to really take this seriously. 

We’ve been lulled by our success in Haywood County into believing that maybe this [pandemic] isn’t a big deal, but we’re just a hop, skip and a jump away from it potentially becoming a big deal, and if we could be successful like we have been, then we don’t have to face that. 

We know that increased risk comes with increased contact between people, and obviously opening up is increasing the contact, so we’re turning up the heat. Is what people have been doing up until now sufficient to still keep the lid on, or will it actually take more people adopting these measures to keep the lid on? We’re going to find that out in the next few weeks. 

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