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How North Carolinians should approach this next pandemic period

Ben McKeown
Richard "Gus" Gusler, owner of Player's Retreat, poses for a portrait inside his restaurant in Raleigh, N.C. on Thursday, March 10, 2022. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the restaurant has been vigilant about protecting its staff and customers from the virus, initially closing for months, then more recently requiring proof of full vaccination to enter.

COVID-19 surges — and mask mandates — have waned in the state. Now businesses and experts weigh how to balance health, wellbeing, and economics in this upcoming phase.

The Player's Retreat, located around the corner from the North Carolina State University Belltower, is an institution. Founded in 1951 by Bernie and Mickey Hanula, it's now owned by Richard "Gus" Gusler, who started working there as a student.

"When I bought the place 16 years ago, the same pizza oven I was cooking on in 1971 was still being used in this kitchen," he said. "We used it up until about four years ago."

While generally thought of as a sports bar — the Wolfpack to be specific — that's actually not where it got its name.

Ben McKeown
A large puffer fish, donning a mask with the initials for Player's Retreat, hangs above the bar in the storied restaurant in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, March 10, 2022.

"Players Retreat came because Mickey and Bernie were really tight with the Thompson Theatre performers on campus. Players Retreat was not athletes; It was actors. [They] were invited to come over and hang out at the restaurant."

It's now bustling again. On a recent morning, glasses clinked, blenders whizzed, and knives chopped, all in preparation for the lunch rush. Two years ago, that wasn't the case. Gusler's wife has COPD, and when the pandemic hit, he wanted to protect her and others from COVID-19. When it came time to open again, he was adamant about safety measures.

"We're not going to serve anybody inside that's not vaccinated," he said.

They got some pushback, mostly from people on social media. But they also received praise from customers who said the PR would be the only place where they eat out. Instead of checking vaccine cards every time, Gusler made buttons people could wear that identified them as vaccinated. For the first round, he planned to order 500.

Ben McKeown
Signs on the door of Player's Retreat reflect the policies of the restaurant requiring proof of vaccination to enter in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, March 10, 2022.

"And then I went, 'Nah I'll go ahead and order 1,000.' Well the first day, we registered 900 people. And I was like, 'OK this is going to work.' We are now over 26,000 individual people who have registered their vaccine cards."

Gusler says he'd be fine to never allow unvaccinated customers back inside. But he realizes that might be impractical. He surveyed customers to get their thoughts. About half said they didn’t care. But a full 25% said they greatly preferred to keep the inside dining rooms for the vaccinated only.

Gusler says those people have been supporting him, and he wants to honor them in return. For the foreseeable future, the PR will still require vaccines to eat or drink inside.

A heavy toll, but a brighter future

After more than 2.6 million cases, and 23,000 deaths, surges of COVID-19 have tailed off. Mask mandates are largely over. Experts, like RTI International epidemiologist Pia MacDonald, say there are reasons to be hopeful.

"We have vaccines that work. That is absolutely monumental," she said. "We have a much better understanding of what therapeutics to employ. And we've been able to develop new therapeutics and have a lot more experience with treating the disease."

Pia MacDonald, RTI International Senior Director, Applied Public Health Research
Pia MacDonald, RTI International Senior Director, Applied Public Health Research

But the coronavirus is still out there. Going forward, MacDonald says people are going to have to make choices for themselves about what kinds of risks they want to take.

"So for example, in my community, if I see cases all of a sudden start to go up very quickly, I might decide that I don't think I want to eat at a crowded restaurant, until I see cases start to go down again," she said.

For some, that might mean keeping masks on even if mandates have ended. MacDonald says despite comments on social media, a tight-fitting mask does offer some protection.

"And so the benefit you have with the N95, or the K95 is that the fibers that are in those masks are electrostatically charged," she said. "And with that, they're 10 times better — or more — at catching particles."

At-home tests are now also widely available, including for free from the federal government. Experts recommend having a few on hand, though warn that these at-home rapid tests aren't perfect. Just because you got a negative result, doesn't guarantee you are virus-free.

N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kody Kinsley
N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kody Kinsley

State health leaders have also changed what they focus on to track the virus. State Health Secretary Kody Kinsley says an important indicator going forward will be wastewater monitoring.

"Wastewater surveillance gives us insight into the existence and the kind of the how much spread we are seeing in a community," he said. "The reason why wastewater is important is because it's passive."

But of course, many people in North Carolina use septic systems.

"The second kind of key metric that we are focused on is syndromic," added Kinsley. "Surveillance, this is the percent of people that are showing up in the emergency department with symptoms that look like COVID-19."

Also looking at hospitalizations, and what COVID-19 variants are predominant. Kinsley stressed the importance of getting vaccinated, and staying up to date with boosters. Right now, just over half of people who took the first two vaccine doses are boosted. Kinsley says it's possible that additional booster shots might become recommended annually, similar to flu shots.

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