Chapel Hill, Orange County officials threaten increased enforcement of COVID-19 rules if UNC students don't follow guidelines

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Saturday, August 8, 2020
Chapel Hill, Orange Co. officials threaten increased COVID-19 enforcement
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The Town of Chapel Hill says it is increasing its police presence downtown and in student neighborhoods this weekend to "encourage safe behaviors and compliance with state and loca

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- The Town of Chapel Hill says it is increasing its police presence downtown and in student neighborhoods this weekend to "encourage safe behaviors and compliance with state and local health orders."

This comes after video of a house party on UNC Chapel Hill's campus raised coronavirus concerns earlier this week.

The school says it will be opening with 65 percent occupancy at resident halls. In class, only 30 percent of students will be allowed. All large lectures would be taught remotely.

"I know the return of students has many concerned - especially in light of the event many witnessed this week," Mayor Pam Hemminger said in a release. "Actions that compromise community health and safety cannot be tolerated."

Because of that, she said, county leaders, university officials and law enforcement personnel met Friday to discuss "a stronger community-wide approach to education and enforcement of state and local orders."

In a news release, town officials said violations of state or local declarations of emergency are Class 2 misdemeanors and are punishable by fine or a jail sentence.

"Now more than ever, we should be mindful that our actions impact the health and safety of others," said Mayor Pam Hemminger. "We know that you can spread the virus without knowing it and the science shows us that not gathering in groups, wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart makes a big difference. When we do this as a community we limit the spread of the virus, keep people from being sick and save lives."

"Our goal continues to be no charges for community members. To accomplish that goal, we must have voluntary compliance with state and local health orders," said Chapel Hill Police Chief and Executive Director for Community Safety Chris Blue. "We understand that people are returning to our community from different parts of the state and country where expectations and standards may be different. We will lead with education efforts to ensure everyone is aware of our high standards for the health and safety of everyone in our community. And, we will enforce those standards when necessary."

Violations carry up to a $1,000 fine and up to 60 days in jail for repeat violators. Police said charges will be reserved for repeat violators and glaring violations of the crowd limitations.

Town officials asked people to follow the three Ws (wear a face covering, wait 6 feet apart and wash your hands regularly) and limit gatherings to no more than 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors.

The town offered ways for people to report violations. Minor violations that would benefit from a follow up, like single face covering violations and small gatherings of people not following physical distancing, can be reported through the non-emergency line. More serious violations like large crowd gatherings should be directed to 911 for an immediate response.

"Since the beginning of the pandemic, area law enforcement agencies have chosen to approach violations with education and encouragement, not with citations," Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood said in a news release Friday. "That remains our preferred response. But repeated violations or egregious violations cannot be tolerated - it is not fair to the permanent residents of this county. I feel confident all students arriving for the first time or returning to Chapel Hill this month know what the campus and the community expects of them. If students fail to meet those expectations, we will obviously need to approach the problem with a different strategy."

On Wednesday, UNC officials held an emergency meeting to clarify the university's reopening after it was reported that Orange County health officials recommended that the university consider virtual classes for the beginning of the semester amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Students were officially allowed to move in on Aug. 3.

"As students have begun to return to campus prior to the official start of the Fall Semester we've experienced a small fraction of what we will see if the campus fully reopens and all the students return for in-person class. In the last 4 weeks we've seen positive COVID clusters among UNC staff and athletic teams," Orange County Health Director Quintana Stewart wrote.

On Thursday, the university announced it was making some revisions to its reopening plan including:

  • Limiting on-campus in-person classroom occupancy to 30 percent
  • Reducing on-campus residential capacity to 64 percent
  • Increasing their testing capacity
  • Increasing the frequency of bus routes with the town and transit partners
  • Increasing on-campus parking options

When students return to classes Monday, they also won't be able to take the traditional "first sip" from the Old Well. Students believe it brings good luck and good grades