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County officials convene to tour high school site

NEWLAND — The Avery County Board of Commissioners and Avery Board of Education met jointly at Avery County High School on August 10 to view and tour the recent progress that has been made on the high school renovation and expansion project.

To guide the officials through the construction zone were the architects and representatives from Branch Construction, who provided an overview of the project’s recent progress, such as the installation of the chiller and the clearing of the work site ahead of the school’s reopening on August 17.

According to Avery County Schools Superintendent Dr. Dan Brigman, the air conditioning at the high school should be up and running by the end of the week on Friday, Aug. 11.

“We are grateful to see progress being made. However, the project remains significantly behind, and our hope is that we can close the timeline a little better as we prepare for the winter months ahead,” Brigman said.

The completion date for the project has been delayed several times, with the current completion date set for late winter or early spring next year. While the project was able to make further progress when schools were first closed due to COVID-19, the effects of the pandemic eventually caught up with construction crews.

In May, it was required that any materials brought into the construction site had to sit for a minimum of four days before it could be moved. At one point in time, construction crews had difficulty accessing out-of-state labor as some of these workers arrived from larger cities. Additionally, the pandemic delayed the ordering of materials such as the Insulated Concrete Forms and steel. Some of the electricians working on the project also had to quarantine for 10 days.

“There were some concerns on the progress, but it looked like things were really moving along,” County Manager Phillip Barrier said. “The main thing is that (the crews) cleared everything out of the way for students to return to the building on Monday. It’s a very exciting project and we’re moving along.”

At the most recent board of education meeting, Rob Johnson of Boomerang Design gave an update on the high school construction project. Johnson said that challenges related to soil nailing, weather and needed infrastructure were factors that have also delayed the project. However, COVID-19 proved not to be as detrimental to the project as expected.

Despite the delays, county officials and board of education members are expecting the final product to be one that the school system and county residents can be proud of, as the county was able to finance the project without raising taxes.

“Things are coming together. We would like for (the progress) to be faster, of course, but we want the quality to be there. Instead of a hurry-up job, we would much rather have a good quality building. I think that’s what we’re going to get. It’s going to be a beautiful building,” Board of Education Chair John Greene said.


Covid19
FINANCIAL FLEXIBILITY
Payroll Protection Program offers lifeline to regional businesses

HIGH COUNTRY — On July 6, the Trump Administration disclosed a database via the Small Business Administration detailing businesses across the country that received more than $150,000 in funds through the Paycheck Protection Program.

The allotments were one of the more significant programs to be ratified as part of the CARES Act, which provided economic stimulus to help mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The information was provided in part due to pressure from Congress as well as organizations such as ProPublica, a nonprofit organization of investigative journalists, filing suit under the Freedom of Information Act.

The federal government provided $659 billion to businesses nationwide through PPP, and banks across the country approved nearly 5 million loans with 661,218 businesses and organizations qualifying for loans between $150,000 and $10 million. In North Carolina, 121,913 businesses received loans, the vast majority of which were less than the $150,000 mark.

Businesses, nonprofits and other organizations with 500 employees or fewer were eligible to borrow as much as 250 percent of monthly payroll expenses to cover employee salaries between Feb. 15 and June 30. Additionally, businesses were able to use the loan amounts to cover interest on mortgages, rent payments, leases, utilities and coronavirus-related expenses.

The loans are eligible to be forgiven depending on the number of employees the business retained. For example, if nine out of 10 employees were retained and the one remaining employee was terminated, 90 percent of the loan amount that the business received would be forgiven. Businesses had until Aug. 8 to apply for PPP loan, after the initial date had been extended from June 30.

Another wave of PPP stimulus funds was introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL.) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) ahead of Congress’s scheduled recess from Aug. 10 to Sep. 7, but the bill stalled during negotiations. The bill would have taken the $128 billion in funds left over from the first wave of funding and increased it to $190 billion, while focusing on sustaining businesses that had lost 50 percent of its revenue.

“It’s a shame because the new bill was specific for businesses that are still in trouble that showed a 50-percent loss in revenue to help them stay in business until (the pandemic) gets better. It’s sad, it really is. It could have been a great package, but we just don’t know,” Vincent Muratore, president of Stone Bank’s SBA Division, said.

Muratore shared Rubio’s sentiments that a new round of layoffs could come throughout the months of July and August until the Senate reconvenes after Labor Day weekend. Unprecedented nationwide unemployment has gradually decreased since the height of the pandemic. In July, unemployment improved to 10.2 percent from 11.1 percent in June after reaching near Depression-era unemployment at 14.7 percent in April.

According to Muratore, the most severely affected industries continue to be hospitality, restaurants and fitness centers/gyms, the latter of which are still completely shut down in NC. Despite the negative consequences of the pandemic, Muratore remains positive about the country’s economic outlook.

“There’s still new business being done,” Muratore said. “Our little bank has over 100 million impending SBA loans. So we still have businesses that believe and are looking to get business, acquire businesses, start businesses even in this environment, which is very optimistic.”

The effects of the PPP program locally have been significant and far reaching, as many businesses have accessed the funds and have been able to retain employees and staff through the publicly financed loans.

Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation is just one of the many businesses or organizations that was able to finance its employees and operations for the time being. The GMSF received a loan amount between $350,000 and $1 million on April 6 approved by the Bank of Tennessee and was able to retain 97 employees.

According to GMSF President and Executive Director Jesse Pope, the nature park was hit hard by the economic repercussions of the pandemic, as its board had to make the difficult decision on March 14 to close the park. Throughout the first two weeks of the closure, the park was able to retain its staff, but as the prolonged effects of the pandemic became apparent, it had to reverse course and furloughed about 30 part-time positions for three to four weeks until these positions were called back when the park reopened on May 15.

“We applied for PPP funds as soon as we could in order to retain our staff through the closure. We had already spent the funds before the deadline was extended, so the increase in time was not very helpful for us, since we used almost all our funds on payroll. Payroll is one of our largest expenses, since we own all the buildings and facilities. We did use some of our funds on qualifying utilities, but most of the funds were used for payroll,” Pope said.

While temporarily closed, the park lost about 50 percent of its revenue in March, 100 percent in April and 70 percent in May. Since the park’s revenue is closely tied with its operations, it is expecting a decrease in revenue between 50 and 60 percent by the end of the year as it continues to operate at half capacity.

Pope said that the PPP program helped cover about five weeks of payroll during a “critical time” in which it had almost no revenue coming in.

“If it wasn’t for the PPP loan and some great philanthropists stepping up to help, we would be in a really different financial situation right now,” Pope said. “We are really concerned about the fall and winter as it remains uncertain how our revenues will be impacted into the fall season. The SBA loans have been a constant moving target. We are just now receiving information on how to apply for forgiveness of the first PPP loan. We will wait and see how the loan forgiveness process goes, to decide whether or not we will apply for further assistance.”

On a positive note, Pope praised the local banks which have stepped up to help answer questions and make the process as simple of possible. Pope mentioned Mountain Community Bank and Hallie Willis specifically, whose staff worked during weekends to process thousands of loans for small businesses in the community.

Lees-McRae College received $1 to 2 million on April 9 and was able to retain 223 employees through its loan approved by Truist Bank Branch Banking & Trust Co. College President Dr. Lee King said the nonprofit organization used the entire loan amount to maintain full employment levels throughout the pandemic.

“The PPP loans allowed us to maintain our full staffing levels and they placed us in a strong position to be able to welcome back our students and resume normal operations this week,” King said.

Several local businesses showed up as having retained zero employees in the SBA PPP database. One such business is Sugar Mountain Resort. However, Gunther Jochl, President/Owner of Sugar Mountain Resort and Mayor of the Village of Sugar Mountain, said that for one reason or another the number is inaccurate.

“Not only did we use (the money) for employees that we have, we also retained more employees than we usually do because they didn’t have a job to go back to,” Jochl said. “We filed the PPP plan with the bank like we’re supposed to and they have all the information. We didn’t have to shut down. We (were able) to retain everyone.”

Sugar Mountain Resort has been operating throughout the pandemic and has hosted events such as its Fourth of July celebration, the Fine Art & Master Crafts Festival, and a mountain bike championship held this past weekend.

“We hired the normal scope of people,” Jochl said. “Instead of one lift for mountain biking, we’ve been operating two lifts. So we’ve been doing good. Of course, we have additional expenses with protective equipment for the employees and the customers, and we have specific guidelines that we have to follow to apply (for the loans). Whatever doesn’t get forgiven we have to pay back at an interest rate.”

PPP loans have a one-percent interest rate with the potential for the loan to be completely forgiven if certain criteria are met.

In Watauga County, 95 businesses were included in the SBA database, with two businesses, Glenbridge Health & Rehabilitation Center and Jackson Sumner and Associates, receiving loans between $1-2 million.

For Watauga County-based business and local landmark Tweetsie Railroad, its loan, totaling between $350,000-1 million, is key to survival and success due to the pandemic’s effect on business.

According to Tweetsie Railroad President Chris Robbins, opening of the park remains uncertain at this time.

When Boone businesses started shutting down in March, Tim Herdklotz — the co-owner of Booneshine Brewing Co. — said his business didn’t have the ability to keep operating at the same capacity as it was pre-pandemic with its 60 employees. Even though the business had to release part of its staff, Booneshine tried to help its employees in several ways, such as offering one free meal each day the business was open while offering take-out.

“It’s a challenging time for running any business, especially a small business,” Herdklotz said. “We decided as a business that we were going to react to this out of a place of hope rather than fear. It doesn’t make things easy. It doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of concern. We’re just continuing to have a hopeful outlook, and continuing to look to see how to make things better for our employees and community in the future.”

Herdklotz and Booneshine co-owner Carson Coatney have invested quite a bit in the last two years into moving the brewery to its new location on the east side of Boone. Herdklotz said the brewery has a fair amount of debt as a small business, and when the pandemic hit and it was important the two owners figure out how to sustain the business moving forward.

When Herdklotz and Coatney heard about the PPP loan, Booneshine immediately submitted an application. Herdklotz said the $240,000 the business received through the loan helped Booneshine retain some staff while they were only offering take-out, as well as to bring the brewery back to its full staffing capacity during Phase 2. Funding from the PPP loan was used toward payroll with some put toward the use of utilities, Herdklotz said. Booneshine plans to apply for PPP loan forgiveness through the Small Business Administration when applications potentially open in August.

The pandemic’s ever-changing conditions continue to have an evolving effect of businesses such as Boone Drug Inc., said company president Corey Furman. Boone Drug has had to reduce its hours of operations at some locations, curtail employee hours and add new policies such as isolation and cleaning procedures. Furman added that Boone Drug has experienced a significant reduction in sales during the last few months.

“We receive new information at least two to three times a week of things we might want to consider changing or some regulation that forces us to change things we’re doing,” Furman said.

Boone Drug was a PPP loan recipient in the $350,000 to $1 million range for its 15 locations. Furman said the business is going to give back PPP funds that weren’t used for paying employees for any COVID-19-related issues. The issues could be paying an employee during quarantine while waiting on a test result, paying an individual who is caring for a sick loved one or other situations covered under the CARES Act, Furman said. PPP funds were not going to be used for items such as utilities, as those elements do not fluctuate depending on sales, Furman said.

To help the communities it serves during the pandemic, Boone Drug has added curbside delivery, provided free hand sanitizer and added a free prescription home delivery service in the county.

In Ashe County, helping to cover a majority of its staffing, Ashe Services for Aging received a loan between $350,000 and $1 million, which has helped to keep its members safe and the ship afloat, according to Executive Director Patricia Calloway.

“We were advised by our audit firm that it was an option. We employ between 140 and 150 people, depending on the given day. That amount was what would have been necessary to cover that eight weeks,” Calloway said. “At the time, we were very uncertain about a lot of our funding sources. We are funded through a variety of grants, senior services and Medicaid, a lot of sources that were uncertain.”

At the same time, the senior center had to worry about more than just funding. Calloway said that the combination of higher-risk individuals in a congregate setting made the fear of an outbreak the immediate focus, and not having to worry about whether they could pay their staff was one less hurdle.

“It was huge. We were able to focus our efforts and our energy into serving the people in our community in the best and safest way possible,” Calloway said.

Calloway added that the senior center’s finance officers and audit team had to work in tandem with LifeStore Bank in a long process to get the loan approved and completed. Calloway said that the senior center received roughly $600,000, enough to completely cover salaries, mortgages, benefits and utilities for eight weeks.

“We felt like it was necessary that we felt safeguarded so we could focus on the work we were doing,” Calloway said.

To view the SBA PPP database in its entirety, click to projects.propublica.org/coronavirus/bailouts/ and enter a zip code to see the business name, loan amount, industry type, number of jobs retained, the lender and the date the loan was approved.

Moss Brennan, Kayla Lasure and Ian Taylor contributed reporting to this story.


Covid19
featured
NC to remain in Phase 2 through early September

RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Aug. 5 that North Carolina will remain in the “safer at home” Phase 2 of the reopening plan for five more weeks, after the governor moved to extend his executive order through at least 5 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 11.

“With the opening of schools, people will move around more and so will the virus,” Cooper said at a press briefing in Raleigh. “Other states that lifted restrictions quickly have had to go backward as their hospital capacity ran dangerously low and their cases jumped higher. We won’t make that mistake in North Carolina.”

N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said that officials believe they are beginning to see COVID-19 numbers stabilize in North Carolina.

“My glimmer of hope remains as we see subtle signs of progress,” Cohen said.

But Cohen noted that the reopening of schools and colleges and universities in the coming weeks will represent a “new phase” in the response.

“Our success at returning thousands of students, teachers and staff safely to classrooms this month depends on us doing what works,” Cooper said. “Most North Carolinians are doing their part to slow the spread of COVID-19 — wearing a mask, waiting six feet apart and washing hands often.”

Cooper said that “experts” believe the state’s mandatory mask order that took effect June 26 helped stabilize the state’s numbers.

“We began to see stabilization about two or three weeks after that order,” Cooper said. “We know that that’s having a positive effect.”

“These simple strategies are more important than ever,” he continued. “It’s time to double down on them. The more people who do this, the better our health and economy will be.”

Cohen said the reason for the five-week extension of Phase 2 — compared with the three-week extensions that have occurred since June — is to give officials time “to have a good line of sight” on whether trends are going to remain stable or go upward or downward as schools reopen over the course of a few weeks.

Local and area statistics

As of Monday afternoon, Aug. 10, the state has more than 136,844 lab-confirmed cases; with 1,111 people hospitalized and 2,172 people who have died, a 190-person increase over the previous week.

Toe River Health District reported eight additional cases of COVID-19 in Avery County in a press release on Monday evening, Aug. 10, increasing the total of confirmed positive cases of coronavirus in the county to 117 total, with 81 have recovered and 36 active cases.

“Public health staff is working to complete the investigations and they are contacting close contacts to contain the spread of disease. To protect individual privacy, no further information about the cases will be released,” an Aug. 10 release from TRHD Director Diane Creek stated. “The Yancey, Mitchell and Avery County Health Departments will keep the public informed by announcing any additional cases that may arise through our local media partners.”

Yancey County had seven new positive cases on Aug. 10, which puts the county at 121 positive cases, with 101 having recovered and 19 cases active, with one death.

Mitchell County added one new positive case on August 10, leaving the county with 121 positive cases, with 113 having recovered, five active cases. TRHD released on Monday, Aug. 10, that a third Mitchell individual had died related to COVID-19.

“Mitchell County Health Department, a part of Toe River Health District, was notified of its third CoVID-19 associated death in Mitchell County,” a release from TRHD stated. “The individual, in their 60s, was hospitalized. To protect the family’s privacy no further information about the patient will be released.”

Nationwide, Johns Hopkins University & Medicine reports more than 19.9 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide, with a total of 5,063,770 cases in the U.S. as of Tuesday morning, Aug. 11, with 163,156 reported deaths nationwide and more than 1,656,864 individuals across the country reported as having recovered from the virus.

The N.C. State Laboratory of Public Health, reporting hospitals and commercial labs report 2,001,919 completed tests as of Monday afternoon, Aug. 10, according to N.C. DHHS. The estimate of people presumed to have recovered from the virus as of August 10 as 116,969 statewide, with the estimate provided each Monday by NCDHHS. NCDHHS estimates a median time to recovery of 14 days from the date of specimen collection for non-fatal COVID-19 cases who were not hospitalized, or if hospitalization status is unknown. The estimated median recovery time is 28 days from the date of specimen collection for hospitalized non-fatal COVID-19 cases.

In neighboring counties, Watauga County has reported 293 positive tests among residents, Caldwell County has 1,215 positive tests as of August 11, with 11 deaths, while Wilkes County has 842 reported cases and 11 deaths, according to NCDHHS. Ashe County has 158 cases and one death, and the department reports McDowell County with 683 cases and 14 deaths. Burke County reports 1,661 cases and 26 deaths attributed to the virus, according to NCDHHS.

In Tennessee, Johnson County reports 285 cases, while Carter County reports 524 cases and six deaths as of August 10, according to statistics from the Tennessee Department of Health.

Statewide, Mecklenburg County has reported the most cases with 22,315. Wake County is reporting 12,077 cases and Durham County reports 6,200 cases, according to August 10 NCDHHS statistics. A total of 38 of North Carolina’s 100 counties report at least 1,000 COVID-19 cases.

The reported testing numbers could be incomplete due to differences in reporting from health departments and other agencies. Sources include Toe River Health District, AppHealthCare, NCDHHS, Caldwell County Health Department and Tennessee Department of Health.

Updated news and information on the coronavirus pandemic and the state’s response can be found by clicking to covid19.ncdhhs.gov/dashboard.