#healthyILM: Mayor Saffo and NHRMC exec create campaign for healthy and safe reopening

Originally published in encore magazine, June 3, 2020

At national and state levels, politics and science have continuously been at odds throughout this global pandemic. It’s a disconcerting fact as North Carolina enters phase two of reopening businesses, and Wilmingtonians look to leaders to lead them out of this mess in a safe and informed way.

“[City of Wilmington] decisions are always based on facts and advice from the public health and medical community, not politics or pressure,” Mayor Bill Saffo affirms. “We have, when prudent to do so, made adjustments to our orders based on engagement with our private sector and public health input.”

Nevertheless, two different perspectives prevail in weathering the global pandemic: those who think going back to business as usual is too dangerous, as a brutal second wave of COVID-19 is imminent, and others for whom the state and city can’t open soon enough—coronavirus be damned.

Executive vice president and chief physician executive at New Hanover Regional Medical Center, Dr. Philip Brown, says while getting back to business is important to everyone, business as usual isn’t achievable right now. At least, it’s not safely doable, according to scientific fact, which show deaths surpassed 101,000 in the U.S. last week.

“The death tolls, which are definitely understated, demonstrate this is a severe threat much different from seasonal illnesses, despite rhetoric to the contrary,” Dr. Brown explains. “We have to learn how to coexist with this virus until we have the tools to better prevent it and treat the often severe, unpredictable illness it causes.”

Wilmington faces some unique challenges in phase two, compared to other NC cities, because of its tourism industry that makes up a large part of its economy. When people come to Wilmington’s downtown or beaches from areas with higher cases of COVID-19, it creates an increased risk for NHC residents. Mayor Saffo reminds how the virus came to Wilmington via travel. Thus leadership decided to move slower in reopening than other cities have been able to.

“We have had to take tough steps with our hotel and short-term rentals to keep our curve down,” he notes. “Our council has based our reopening decisions on data and medical advice, not emotions. I think that approach has served our community well.”

The other challenge our city faces is disregard for safety measures (wearing masks, social distancing, etc.). Dr. Brown points to those early measures as successful preventions to keep COVID-19 outbreaks down in Wilmington.

“As a healthcare provider, I am saddened by seeing individuals put one another at increased risk by disregarding simple, evidence-based actions, like wearing masks in public,” he says. “I know such action imposes excess and unnecessary risk on my staff and colleagues, as well as my friends, neighbors and family. One of the very early things our medical community had to do to respond to this crisis was to suspend disbelief about how serious this disease was.”

Too soon or not, phase two is in effect, and Dr. Brown says the actions of individuals are what matter. It’s especially important since only a handful of precautions have proven to fight COVID-19:

  1. Physical distancing (at least 6-feet or more apart)
  2. Strict avoidance of large gatherings
  3. Hygiene/hand washing and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces
  4. Wearing masks in public when physical spacing is difficult or impossible

“As we learn more, there may be new opportunities to make an impact,” Dr. Brown says, “but for now, those four are it. Business innovations that create opportunities consistent with those four principles will save lives in our community. It is that simple. Every person and business can make a difference, if they choose to do so.”

There isn’t area-wide enforcement of measures in place; though, businesses are asked to follow Governor Cooper’s guidelines in phase two. However, Dr. Brown notes the challenge throughout hasn’t been one of force but of compassion: “[a shared] commitment to keep one another as safe as possible without creating other hardships.”

Enter #healthyILM, a social media campaign led by Dr. Brown and Mayor Saffo to highlight area retailers and small businesses making smart and healthy choices as they reopen. To participate, business owners or managers share pictures or videos of their public health-efforts in action, using #healthyILM in their post.

The City of Wilmington recently highlighted Riverfront Farmers Market with a video about safety precautions at the downtown market. Front Street Brewery posted an informative video featuring Rep. Deb Butler and manager Ellie Craig walking through new and approved sanitation measures for restaurants reopening. Other restaurants sharing #healthyILM stories include Copper Penny, which replaced its high-top tables and seating with booths to maintain safe social distancing; El Cerro Grande, which cleaned, repainted and even redecorated all three of its locations; and Zocalo, which completed the ServSafe reopening guidance certificate.

Tony McEwen, assistant to the city manager, thought up the campaign. He says as businesses share and lead by example on socials, hopefully it will encourage others to listen to public-health professionals and reopen with caution while also keeping employees and customers safe.

“Additionally,” he says, “we want this to be a forum for residents to share what they are seeing as they are out in public and, as well, to say ‘thank you’ to those businesses. The combination of both  opportunities, we hope, will serve to assist our small businesses, the health of our residents, and local economy.”

While Mayor Saffo notes this unique time in American history not really having a “playbook,” he recognizes the struggles many businesses face. There’s a heartbreaking likelihood some may not survive—despite help from Wilmington Chamber of Commerce and organizations like Wilmington Downtown Inc.

“I have been frustrated by the not-fully-unified response from the government and how it has affected our small businesses,” Mayor Saffo notes, adding how some have had trouble accessing federal funds. “The sooner we get the public health part of this right, the quicker we will rebound economically . . . we must remain vigilant and mindful of public-health recommendations to protect our community and loved ones.”

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