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Covid19
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16 App State construction workers test positive for COVID-19

BOONE — Appalachian State announced on May 14 that 16 subcontracted workers for a campus construction project have tested positive for COVID-19. The workers are not Watauga County residents.

The university was informed of the cases by AppHealthCare, it said in an email to students.

AppHealthCare identified a small number of university employees with potential exposure, App State said in the email, and one tested positive – this case was reported by the university and AppHealthCare on May 7 — while the others tested negative.

“There is no direct risk to the university community related to these cases,” the university said.

App State also said the contractor has “engaged in a thorough cleaning at the job site and the workers will remain off campus until cleared by public health to return.”

“When App State learned of self-reported cases through one of our contractors, we engaged with the contractor and AppHealthCare to ensure access to testing was available to all members of the work crew,” App State said in the email.

The university has also implemented enhanced precautionary measures that require all subcontracted workers to wear masks and maintain appropriate physical distance. University employees currently working on campus also must wear masks and maintain appropriate physical distance.

“We continue to hear of self-reported, confirmed cases that are not being tested by AppHealthCare or App State,” the university said. “As we learn of these cases, we are coordinating with local public health agencies to the greatest extent possible, in consultation with the North Carolina Division of Public Health Communicable Disease team. AppHealthCare continues to be a valuable university partner, helping verify tests that may have been performed in other counties. App State will continue to keep the university community informed about verified, positive cases.”

Students who are concerned about symptoms should call Student Health Services at 828-262-3100 and ask to speak with a nurse. Faculty or staff who have concerns about students or their own health diagnoses should reach out to safety@appstate.edu.

All construction projects remain on schedule, according to the email.

For more information about Appalachian State’s response to COVID-19, visit www.appstate.edu/go/coronavirus.


Covid19
WHS shares 'drive-through' graduation plans, students to receive diploma on outdoor stage

BOONE — In accordance with state-mandated restrictions on large gatherings, Watauga High School plans to host an outdoor “drive-through” graduation ceremony on Saturday, May, 30, at the school.

The ceremony will include many of the aspects of a traditional ceremony while taking precautions to protect the health and safety of the students. Weather permitting, the ceremony will be held outdoors on the WHS campus on an elevated stage.

Graduates and their families will drive onto campus and be routed around the building to the outdoor stage. At this time, the school system is allowing multiple vehicles in a graduation caravan-type style and ask that seniors be in the front vehicle. Seniors will be asked to exit their vehicles and walk across the stage in their caps and gowns to receive their diploma. When the senior is on stage, families will have an opportunity to take photos and celebrate their student’s achievement. The ceremony will include speeches by student leaders, Principal Chris Blanton and Superintendent Scott Elliott.

Blanton said that while state restrictions have forced significant changes on the school’s commencement ceremony, WHS staff was doing everything possible to give students a chance to experience the graduation ceremony they deserve.

“We wish nothing more than to be able to hold our usual graduation ceremony and to celebrate the success of our graduating seniors in the full assembly we’re used to, but since that is not possible at this time, we want to hold a ceremony that includes as many traditional elements of graduation as we can,” Blanton said.

Blanton said the individualized ceremony would include everything from a presentation of colors from the WHS MCJROTC to “Pomp and Circumstance” playing while students pick up their diplomas on stage in their caps and gowns.

Watauga High School stated it has hired professional photographers that will be set to capture graduating seniors as they cross the stage, as well as a team of videographers who will document the entire ceremony and release a video within a week of graduation.

Watauga County Schools Superintendent Scott Elliott said the system was doing everything possible to ensure that families could have access to the graduation ceremony.

“We had the opportunity to meet with student leaders in the graduating class to get an idea of what their priorities were for a graduation ceremony,” Elliott said. “Two themes very quickly came to the top. Seniors want to be able to cross a stage to get their degree, and they want their families to be able to be there when that happens.”

“We’ve been in contact with local health officials and emergency management, and based on their recommendations, we think the best way to ensure as many family members can attend the ceremony as possible is to hold commencement outdoors with each student being recognized one at a time.”

Elliott said he was excited that the event would be professionally photographed and captured on video bringing even more chances for the ceremony to be viewed by friends and family.

“Our students have been through so much this year,” Elliott said, “and in a lot of ways it is our seniors who have felt the disruption most acutely. While circumstances have denied them some of the traditions and events that we hold dearly to mark the end of our high school education, we want to do everything in our power to ensure they can have the best-possible graduation.”

WHS seniors will receive additional information regarding the logistics of the commencement ceremony in the coming days. The high school plans to divide the ceremony up in alphabetical order to help facilitate the smooth flow of traffic.

Seniors were asked to pick up their caps and gowns on May 14 at the high school. AS students drove up, WCS staff handed them their graduation regalia as well as student awards they had received and a flyer with instructions with more to follow.

In the past, seniors at WHS and the Watauga Innovation Academy have enjoyed a senior awards ceremony and a separate scholarship ceremony. The scholarships will now be announced in a pre-recorded message at 6 p.m. on May 26 with a link to the pre-recorded ceremony available on the high school webpage.

WHS school counselor Wes Calbreath said if an organization would like to pre-record a video message of congratulations to the winner, the school can insert the message into the ceremony. He added that officials will ensure that homage will be paid to the origin of the scholarship. If there is any history or information a presenter would like to send to Calbreath, he said that can be inserted as well. The recording of the ceremony must be finished by May 20, he said.


Covid19
County, Boone to consider local COVID-19 restrictions next week

BOONE — Eyes and ears are focused on Tuesday and Thursday, May 19 and 21, when the Watauga County Board of Commissioners and Boone Town Council will each deliberate over how to move forward with local COVID-19 restrictions.

The commissioners will revisit the plan they adopted at their May 5 meeting to maintain local emergency restrictions through the first two weeks of Phase 2 of the governor’s reopening plan — meaning if Phase 2 begins May 22, local restrictions such as the 14-day quarantine order and ban on short-term rentals would not be eased until June 5. At that time, the county plans to discontinue the 14-day self-quarantine restriction and resume lodging and short-term rentals, with facilities having more than a six-person occupancy limited to 50 percent occupancy.

But according to the materials for the May 19 commission meeting, “after the board adopted the above option, the governor modified the recommendations of his Phase 1 and several of the surrounding counties removed or partially lifted their restrictions. The county has received many comments regarding the 14-day self-quarantine and the issues related with its continued enforcement.”

Thus far, leaders of the county and its four municipalities have acted in unison to amend declarations of emergency to enact restrictions that go beyond the governor’s executive orders. The amendments bar overnight lodging and short-term rentals; have closed all public playgrounds, recreational courts and shelters; and require 14-day quarantines for those arriving from an overnight stay outside of the county.

But at least two municipalities — Boone and Blowing Rock — have indicated the potential to diverge from the unified plan.

The Boone Town Council will consider a proposal by Councilperson Sam Furgiuele to enact a number of measures to remain in effect until modified or until a COVID-19 vaccine is developed, including an order for people arriving in Boone from other areas to self-quarantine for 14 days. Other measures include: requiring employees interacting with the public to wear a face mask; requiring establishments open to the public to provide hand sanitizers for use as people enter and leave, to the extent that such products are available; requiring businesses to screen employees for symptoms; and requiring disposable menus at restaurants.

Furgiuele expressed concerns that reopening plans are moving too quickly and that the town has a responsibility to protect its citizens. The council on May 7 voted 4-1, with Councilperson Nancy LaPlaca against, to direct the town attorney to draft language incorporating the proposals for consideration at the regular May council meeting.

The proposal has drawn concerns and criticism from the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce and the High Country Association of Realtors.

“The language outlining a proposed indefinite lengthening of a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all visitors coming to the area, as well residents traveling from and back to the area, represents an unrealistic enforcement issue and poses negative impacts on our tourism economy, small business community, incoming college students and a large percentage of our workforce, who may work in Boone, but live in counties other than Watauga,” the chamber stated in a May 8 statement indicated it “strongly disagrees” with the proposal.

The HCAR released a statement on May 12 addressing the council’s proposal.

“Your recent action to break away from the High Country’s unified response to the COVID-19 crisis is detrimental to both businesses and its citizens,” it said. “This decision adds to the confusion of who can come to Boone, where can they stay, for how long and if they are “essential” or not. This will have a direct effect on the real estate industry in Boone, which will trickle down to our small town businesses (inspectors, attorneys, mortgage lenders, insurance carriers, movers, contractors, etc.) and even further to shopping, dining and attractions.”

The Blowing Rock Town Council on May 12 heard concerns from representatives of local businesses and homeowners about the county’s plan, urging the town to instead lift the local restrictions with the beginning of the statewide Phase 2.

The Blowing Rock council scheduled a special meeting for 3 p.m. Thursday, May 21, to consider possible action on COVID-19 restrictions following the commission’s reconsideration of its plan.

At a virtual town hall meeting hosted by the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce on May 13, AppHealthCare Director Jennifer Greene said that health officials want to have enough time to implement plans for expanded testing and to train additional contact tracers before lifting all restrictions.

“Our intention was never to have (restrictions) be ongoing forever and ever, but to use the data to drive the decisions,” Greene said.

Melissa Bracey, spokesperson for AppHealthCare (the public health department for Watauga, Ashe and Alleghany counties), said on May 14 that the department did not yet know how many of the 250 contact tracers being hired statewide would be working with AppHealthCare.

“As we meet the need to expand testing, we want to make sure we have the capacity to perform contact tracing so we can quickly isolate positive cases and quarantine close contacts,” Bracey said. “To that end, we have shifted some staff to be ready to support the additional projected need contact tracing efforts in the interim. Our public health nurses routinely do contact tracing, in addition to initial case investigation routinely, and to date, have continued that effort for every positive case identified.”

N.C. Rep. Ray Russell (D-Boone), who participated in the chamber town hall, encouraged government leaders to legislate based on science, saying that otherwise, leaders risk breeding mistrust or rebellion.

“(Don’t) make rules to make rules,” Russell said.

David Jackson, president and CEO of the Boone Area Chamber, said during the May 13 town hall that it would be important for area businesses to gain customer trust by “doing the right thing,” such as wearing masks, posting signage and adhering to social distancing recommendations. Margaret Roy, general manager of the Holiday Inn Express in Boone, said that the hotel has already had to turn away business due to restrictions that are more stringent than the state, which drives customers to other communities.

“The longer that we send them to those places, the less chance that we have to get them back,” Roy said.

The county commissioners meet virtually at 5:30 p.m. May 19. Public comments can be submitted by email to public.comments@watgov.org.

The Boone Town Council will consider draft restrictions at the May 21 virtual meeting, which begins at 6 p.m. To provide public comment for the Boone Town Council, email Town Manager John Ward at john.ward@townofboone.net or call in at 828-268-6205 and you will be provided with an invite to the meeting. All registrations must be completed by 5:45 p.m. on the day of the meeting.


Erin Ellington accepts her WCS Teacher of the Year award alongside husband Kemp and children Jack and Mae.