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Lots of economic pain across the state, lawmakers confirm

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Four state lawmakers from across North Carolina gave a sobering report on how the coronavirus pandemic has slammed their local economies during a videoconference this week sponsored by the NC Chamber business promotion group.

N.C. Rep. Pat McElraft of Carteret County warned of widespread, forced sales of beach property because of a lack of renters during the peak summer-vacation season. She lives in Emerald Isle, where 50,000 people show up on summer weekends in normal years.

N.C. State Sen.Chuck Edwards of Waynesville said the N.C. summer-camp industry is fearing as much as two years of sharply reduced income as parents decline to send their kids to camp. His western N.C. district has more summer camps than any U.S. legislative district, he says.

N.C. State Sen. Paul Newton of Cabarrus County noted that the strong hospitality near Charlotte Motor Speedway and Concord Mills is mostly shuttered, causing many layoffs. The big shopping center has only two stores open: Bass Pro Shops and Best Buy, he says.

And N.C. Rep. Michael Wray of Roanoke Rapids said occupancy of Interstate 95 hotels that operate in his district is about 25%, a fraction of normal levels, while many restaurants have virtually no revenue.

The upshot is that the N.C. General Assembly has much work to do as it convenes today to focus on relief programs to cushion the economic blows. The lawmakers also noted that hospitals in their regions are suffering sharp financial losses because of cancelled medical surgeries and reduced volume. Most N.C. hospitals have postponed elective surgeries to prepare for a surge of COVID-19 patients, which has decimated provider revenues.

The lawmakers mentioned a few positives, such as Corning’s expansion at its Midland fiber-optics plant in Cabarrus County. Newton said the company is hiring new employees and offering bonuses to existing workers as demand for bandwidth grows with more workers and students staying at home.

But Edwards said the usually bustling downtowns in his district, including Waynesville and Brevard, are “essentially ghost towns.” Efforts to rely on takeout orders hasn’t worked at most restaurants, he said.

North Carolina’s summer camps get more than 90% of annual revenue during the 7 to 10 weeks of summer operation, says Sandy Garcia Boyer, executive director of the N.C. Youth Camp Association. Most are waiting for more direction before deciding on this summer’s plans. “They are already seeing devastating layoffs and revenue loss for the spring season,” she says. “If camps are unable to operate this summer, they will face 22 months of no earned income.” Most camps are waiting till May 15 before making decisions, she adds.

Asked about whether businesses should be reopening sooner than projected by Gov. Cooper, Newton was the most vehement about a quicker response. He urged a partial reopening immediately, while limiting capacity and maintaining social distancing. “We are going to cause a lot of harm for North Carolinians as long as we are waiting to move into Phase 2,” he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a light on North Carolina’s safety net for the unemployed, Newton said, adding that improvements are needed. “We should have been better prepared to help people who are hurting after their jobs were shut down,” he said, adding that he didn’t mean to be critical of the state’s employment-security leadership.

Newton added that, as the pandemic crisis eases, North Carolina should position itself to be the state “where job creators choose first in where they build their businesses.”

McElraft, Newton and Edwards are Republicans, while Wray is a Democrat.

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