Padlocked during a Pandemic: Three years after lockdown, a look back on the effects of a statewide stay-at-home order

Gov. Cooper issued a stay-at-home order on March 27, 2020, which took effect on March 30 at 5 p.m.
No one expected a mandatory stay-at-home order. The only thing North Carolina residents knew was there was a virus—a deadly one—spreading across the world.
Published: Mar. 27, 2023 at 4:50 PM EDT
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Charles Hill, the general manager of the New Hanover County ABC Board, says alcohol sales skyrocketed during the lockdown.

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - On March 27, 2020, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper did something that had never been done before statewide; he issued a mandatory stay-at-home order. Executive Order No. 121 took effect on Monday, March 30 at 5:00 p.m.

It was a first for North Carolina.

“We are in unchartered territory,” Gov. Cooper said on March 27, 2020.

Three years later, the state is still feeling the effects of a lockdown. No saw it coming. No one expected a mandatory stay-at-home order. The only thing North Carolina residents knew was there was a virus—a deadly one—spreading across the world.

The quick fix—stay at home.

“The more we can stay at home—the more we can flatten this curve,” Governor Cooper said.

In the blink of an eye, Southeastern North Carolina shut down. Downtown areas looked like ghost towns and area beaches were desolate. People were terrified of coming in contact with anyone who had been exposed to the virus.

“There was a time when people were sanitizing their bananas being delivered from a grocery store because we didn’t understand anything about this virus,” said Kody Kinsley, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Kinsley, who was deputy secretary of DHHS at the time, recalls the daily updates.

“We were Monday morning quarterbacking this experience every single day,” Kinsley said. “We were constantly evaluating what was working--what wasn’t as far as the deployment of operational resources.”

The mandatory stay-at-home order was difficult for local schools. There was no time to do homework.

“We weren’t ready for the technological piece for it here and so what was happening is we were getting computers in the moment,” said Dr. Charles Foust, Superintendent of New Hanover County Schools.

Dr. Foust would start his new position as superintendent of New Hanover County Schools in the midst of it all. It was a crisis for a school system already plagued with problems.

“That was not only dealing with the pandemic but we were dealing with lawsuits at the same time. Our school district had a lot of stress at the time,” he said. “What we did in the moment is what would be equated to a situation of like to an ER. You are--someone is in cardiac arrest, and we’ve got to fix it. And so, it doesn’t look pretty but we get it done.”

Perhaps the most challenging at the time—telling high school seniors there would be no traditional graduation.

“I don’t think individuals knew how hard it was on the leaders,” Foust said. “They’ll never get those graduations back. They’ll never get those proms--those memories back.”

Foust says remote learning created many issues including attention deficits for some students.

“When we removed them from school—which we had to, we needed to because of this pandemic — students went to their electronic devices and they stopped socializing,” he said. “So everyone thinks about the learning loss. I look at it from the lens of the social side of students, so we have students who didn’t interact with another individual. It was all through social media.”

Foust says they are changing how they do school. They now have one-to-one devices used by all high schools that is used as a textbook.

“We have to do a lot of redo’s and help people understand—students, when I say people—help them understand that what you were introduced to, that’s not how we do school,” Foust said.

Restaurants, gyms, nail salons—you name it—were forced to shut down. The original order called for the stay-at-home order to be lifted on April 29. But after Covid-19 cases continued to climb at an alarming rate, Gov. Cooper extended the order.

During the initial stay-at-home order, some businesses were deemed essential and allowed to remain open such as grocery stores. One business that never closed during the entire pandemic was the ABC store.

“It created a sense of normalcy for some of our customers,” said Charles Hill, the general manager of the New Hanover County ABC Board.

Hills says sales skyrocketed.

“That had to do with some of the bars and restaurants closing and people not being able to go to their favorite restaurant or their favorite watering hole. They were going to our stores and purchasing it and having their cocktails at home,” said Hill.

There was also concern among healthcare workers that cutting off access to alcohol during a pandemic could have created more issues.

“There was already a strain on our healthcare system and there could have been a different strain,” Hill said.

Sunday morning church services were halted. Some congregations resorted to Zoom, social media and conference calls.

Rev. Clifford Barnett, the pastor of Warner Temple AME Zion Church, moved his services just outside the church’s doors.

“One of the guys in our church named James said ‘hey if we get an FM radio station, we can do services right here in the parking lot.’ He literally took the cameras and all that and worked from his car and we got the station and we just started doing it in the parking lot,” Rev. Barnett recalled.

Rev. Barnett says there was an adjustment period, but his congregation eventually settled in on the pavement.

“They loved it. They loved the flexibility. Well, they love the idea I don’t have to dress up. I can drink the beverage of my choice in the car,” he said jokingly. “As a matter of fact, my wife prefers the parking lot.”

Rev. Barnett finds humor now, but it was no laughing matter three years ago. The pastor, who is also a Wilmington City Councilman, says he’s just grateful to get beyond what he never in his wildest dreams imagined.

“I don’t think anyone did. I think most of us thought this was going to be like a bump—like a couple of months and we’ll be in and out. As a matter of fact, I don’t think anyone thought we would be talking about it three years later.”