Chapel Hill mayor speaks to GMA about COVID-19's impact on downtown, university community

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- As COVID-19 clusters on the University of North Carolina campus bringing Chapel Hill into the national spotlight, mayor Pam Hemminger spoke to Good Morning America about the impacts of the virus on her town and community.

UNC-Chapel Hill reopened to students in early August but had to pivot to remote learning amid multiple COVID-19 clusters in on and off-campus housing.

Prior to the university moving classes online, the town council sent a letter to UNC stating concerns about an increase in cases. Hemminger said they wanted campus to conduct remote learning at the start. The Orange County Health Department had also written a letter to university officials recommending the first five weeks of class be conducted remotely.

"We wanted the campus to go virtual. We know that if you bring that many students back in and pack them into dorm situations and Greek life, that we were going to see an increase in cases," said Hemminger. "So we wanted the university to work with us and figure a way to go virtual. And so that we would contain this virus more easily."

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Classes are now virtual at UNC, but that doesn't mean all students have left Chapel Hill. Mayor Hemminger said she's working with the university trying to keep the community safe while some students remain in town.

"It's been hard, we love our students. They bring this vitality back to our community when they come back every year. But we also know they like to congregate. They like to celebrate," said Hemminger. "They have signed a pledge saying they understood community safety measures were (in place). We meet with the university almost on a daily basis trying to figure out pathways forward. We increased our foot patrols and the university has sent their public safety officers into the community. And we write warnings and we actually write citations when students aren't paying attention to the safety standards we asked them to. And then the university has the right to take action as well."

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Last week, Chapel Hill police said four citations were issued to people violating COVID-19 safety regulations. Mayor Hemminger said the university can take action against violations in many ways.

"They range the gamut from warnings all the way to de-enrollment from classes if students are having egregious behavior against the community standards," said Hemminger.

The pivot to virtual learning in Chapel Hill has reduced foot traffic to local businesses, but the town has made adjustments on Franklin Street to facilitate the changing economy downtown.

"So we are intertwined with a university that is that is the lifeblood of our economy here. And when we go virtual, it means there's fewer people coming and going from campus, fewer conferences, fewer sporting events. That hurts businesses, mostly in the downtown area as people come into our community to partake in those events. Our businesses are struggling," said Hemminger. "We did expand our sidewalks, increase outside dining so that we could help our restaurants and businesses be more successful. That's been an improvement, but it is hard. It's hard to balance the economy."

With all of the rapid developments, Mayor Hemminger said even though many will have to make big personal sacrifices, the main priority is keeping people safe.

"At the end of the day, the number one thing governments do is try to keep people safe," said Hemminger. "People are having to make sacrifices some more than others. And it's a really tough situation. But it's about what the virus can do to the community. We are partners with the university and we're trying to work on this together."

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