By Dave Russell, The Sylva Herald

Two more Jackson County residents were diagnosed with COVID-19 over the past week.

As of Tuesday, the Jackson County Department of Public Health reported 22 cases of full-time residents, two cases in part-time residents and 1,097 tests performed. There were 20 positive tests reported among out-of-county residents who were tested here.

Last week, the health department reported 20 cases of full-time residents, two cases in part-time residents and 905 tests performed. There were 19 positive tests reported among out-of-county residents who were tested here. Most, if not all of those, are connected with a construction site at Western Carolina University, health officials said.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday reported 15,816 cases and 597 deaths in the state, with 210,457 tests conducted. The virus is present in 99 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, with Avery County the lone holdout.

Nationwide, cases number 1,342,594 and deaths 80,820 as of 4 p.m. Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

Jackson County officials last Monday reported the first death from COVID-19. That individual was over the age of 65 and had underlying health conditions, the health department said. 

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services zip code map shows 14 cases and one death in 28779 (Sylva), four in 28723 (Cullowhee), one in 28783 (Tuckasegee) and two in 28789 (Whittier).

Other zip codes in the county report no cases.

Two weeks ago, an outbreak of COVID-19 popped up on a construction site on the WCU campus, with about 229 workers at the Tom Apodaca Science Building site.

“By our assessment, the outbreak at WCU is contained,” Jackson County Department of Public Health Deputy Director Melissa McKnight said. “The job site re-opened last week. They are also implementing temperature testing for workers and those entering the job site.”

N.C. opening phases begin

Gov. Roy Cooper last month announced a three-phase “re-opening” of the state. 

Phase I began at 5 p.m. Friday, May 8, easing some travel restrictions and allowing non-essential businesses to open.

Downtown Sylva is seeing a smattering of “Open” signs on doors, though they come with caveats, such as “masks required.”

Antique and curio shop End of Main opened Wednesday.

“I’m going to limit shoppers to 10,” owner John Wermuth said. “I don’t know what to expect. I’m only going to open Wednesdays through Saturdays for the time being, from about 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.”

Wermuth will use his closed hours to sanitize as much of his inventory as possible.

“I can’t wipe every single item down,” he said. “I’m asking customers to look with their eyes and not with their hands.”

In addition to the open sign, a sign on Wermuth’s front door will ask customers to wear masks.

“I’m not going to chase customers away if they refuse to wear a mask, but I prefer they wear a mask,” he said.

Friends of the Library, a volunteer organization supporting the Jackson County Public Library, remains closed indefinitely, he said. 

They rolled several carts of books to End of Main to continue sales and their mission.

“I hate that they had to do that, but they’re part of a vulnerable population,” Wermuth said.

Other downtown shops are opening, but have different hours and days. He recommended anyone shopping call the shops first. 

Masks are required to shop at Jackson’s General Store, with a two-shopper limit when owner Crystal Cogdill is the only one working the floor, she said.

“I’m here every day working anyway, so I decided to go ahead and open,” Cogdill said.

With more employees working the floor, Cogdill will let four people in at a time, she said.

Casinos to open – slowly 

Almost 60 days after closing their doors, Harrah’s Cherokee Casinos begins a gradual reopening of both sites on Monday.

Areas such as the gaming floor, hotel and some restaurants, where social distancing can be practiced will be the first to open, with significant limitations on occupancy, according to a release.

Areas where social distancing is not possible, such as the spa, valet, poker, buffet and concerts, will remain closed.

To make social distancing possible, access to the casinos will be by invitation only at first with small groups of customers receiving the invitation by email.

Before beginning work, each employee will complete a screening, which will include a questionnaire and temperature check, and be required to wear a face mask while on duty.