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‘Don’t Relax,’ Says Macon County Health Officials As COVID-19 Numbers Rise

Lilly Knoepp
Blue Ridge Public Radio
In Highlands, signs reminding the public to help stop the spread of COVID-19 dot the main street.

Macon County continues to have the highest concentration of COVID-19 cases in Western North Carolina. BPR takes a deeper look at one of the county’slargest employers, which saw one of the first clusters of cases there. 


About 8 percent of Macon County roughly 34,000 residents have been tested for COVID-19 explains Emily Ritter, the public information officer for the county’s Public Health department.


“There is ‘community spread’ in Macon County, and that does not know zip codes. COVID-19 does not care if you live in Highlands, Nantahala, Franklin, or Otto,”  says Ritter. This month over 700 people were tested at four clinics in Highlands and Cashiers.


That high percentage of testing is one reason for the high number of cases.  In addition, Macon County borders Georgia and South Carolina - two states that rolled back COVID restrictions early and subsequently became hot spots for the virus. Lastly, there’s the increase in movement since businesses partially reopened in Macon County. 

“It really is kind of the perfect storm of all things kind of happening at once,” says Ritter. 


 Much of the conversation about COVID-19 in the county has centered on the town of Highlands. 


The town has a population of just under a thousand people - but that more than doubles during the summer months when second home owners return to the area. According to the town chamber’swebsite, the whole plateau has over 3,000 residents but balloons up to 18,000 in the summers.

 Jack Austin, General Manager of Old Edwards Hospitality Group, explains Old Edwards Inn and Spa’s impact on the town: “With 450 employees in a small town like Highlands we have a big footprint. I’ve long said since I got here 10 years ago, that what isn’t good for Highlands, isn’t good for Old Edwards.” 

Old Edwards has six lodging locations along with a golf course, restaurants and a wine garden. Austin says the staff are a mix of locals from Clayton and Franklin as well as people who come to work with summer visas. He estimates there are usually about 50 J1 visa workers and that last year there were 24 H2B visa workers.  About a third of the employees rent housing from the company around Highlands. 


At the beginning of June, the hotel was operating at 40 percent capacity. Now it’s at 80 percent capacity. In July, the hotel plans to be at 100 percent. That’s about 400 guests. 


“July looks like summer in Highlands. There is pent up demand for sure,” says Austin. 


Summer crowds line the streets - some in masks and others without. Signs reminding the public to help stop the spread of COVID-19 dot the main street. 


Dr. Richard Ellin says he is concerned that Phase Two has encouraged people in the region to relax too much.


“They take the message as, 'Oh, well, things must be safer. The virus is going away. So it's not that important to maintain social distance or wear a mask.' And it's really just the opposite.  As more people congregate together, more frequently, the viral spread tends to increase,” says Ellin. 


Ellin is on the board of the Highlands Cashiers Health Foundation.


Two of the free clinics were organized by the Highlands Cashiers Health Foundation, the foundation created after Mission Health System was purchased by HCA Health in February 2019. CEO Robin Tindall says that the foundation wanted to support the community during the COVID health crisis through this free testing as well as $70,000 to local towns (Cashiers, Franklin, Sylva, and Highlands) for hand sanitizer to be placed at area businesses. 


Ellin has also been working part-time at an HCA practice in Highlands and Cashiers for the last 4 years. He spoke with BPR from his home in Atlanta where he lives about half of the year. He’s moved back in part because of COVID-19.


As a doctor, Ellin sympathizes with people who need to work during the pandemic and blames state and federal leadership. 


"I think it goes back to the CDC guidelines being insufficent to protect public health," says Ellin, whomade it clear he was not speaking on behalf of HCA Health or Highlands-Cashiers Health Foundation.


Austin says none of the staff at Old Edwards that are in direct contact with guests have tested positive.


Over 80 percent of the overall cases in Macon County identify as Latinx. Across North Carolina,the Latinx community has been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. 


Austin says the Latinx community is a big part of Old Edwards.


“They are such a critical parts of our economy and our community. And I just hate to see them getting singled out for anything. I think that there are a lot of reasons that any of us can extrapolate as to why it might be more prevalent in that community,” says Austin. 


Austin says almost all company information on COVID-19 was translated into Spanish.


“I mean, that's a significant portion of our workforce where we're not doing anybody, a service to leave them out of the conversation,” he says. 


Macon County Public Health says restaurants should provide masks for employees if they are part of a required uniform but that there is no evidence that COVID-19 can spread through a foodborne transmission. 


“So it's not required for restaurant staff, especially in back of house or serving food to be wearing mask, but it certainly would be preferred,” Ritter says. Here are some of the recommended guidelines.


Back at Old Edwards, Austin says the resort has stepped up sanitation procedures including required masks, gloves and other measures. Workers and guests are both required to have their temperature checked upon entry. Guests at the Inn are not required to wear a mask. 


Employees who spoke with BPR anonymously said the Inn has increased sanitation but procedures are not always followed to the letter. Austin said that the inn has fired at least one employee for not following these new procedures.

Since the first cluster, a number of Highlands restaurants have temporarily shuttered because of positive COVID-19 cases on staff including Old Edward’s Four65 Woodfire Bistro, andBridge at Mill Creek.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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