OCRACOKE, N.C. – The start of the summer season was supposed to be a special time for the residents of this Outer Banks island. It would be the first time many tourists would be coming back to Ocracoke since Hurricane Dorian caused widespread damage in the village last September.
However, businesses are now faced with the challenge of how to safely welcome the tourists they depend on in the middle of a global pandemic while still rebuilding from a devastating storm.
What You Need To Know
- Many businesses on Ocracoke have been shut down for nine months since Hurricane Dorian hit
- The businesses that have been able to reopen are counting on tourists to come back to the island this summer
- If you are planning a visit to Ocracoke, health officials ask that you follow all state regulations and individual restrictions that stores may be putting in place due to COVID-19. Most stores on the island are requiring customers to wear masks
On my recent visit to Ocracoke, I spoke with the island's only physician, Dr. Erin Baker. She's the medical director at the Ocracoke Health Center and has called the community home for 10 years.
Baker was quick to point out, “We have people that are ready to go back to life. It’s been months and months – nine months.”
Like most buildings in Ocracoke, Baker's clinic sustained damage from Hurricane Dorian's storm surge. As she put it water "kissed the floor" forcing her to treat residents in a makeshift clinic after the storm hit.
The warped boards have now been replaced, and mold was removed from the building. Like most other doctor's offices around the country through, patients are not making as many in-person visits these days.
Due to COVID-19, the Ocracoke Health Center has mostly been seeing residents through telehealth visits since March. Baker hopes that has prepared her to treat an increased population virtually during the summer tourist season.
Businesses are depending on that increased population returning this summer and visiting their shops, restaurants, and inns along with the island's pristine beaches.
Amy Howard who runs the Village Craftsmen says, “Normally during the summer we can have anywhere from one person to 35 people in the shop at any given time. I'm trying to figure out how to keep a safe number of people here but still have enough product, enough artwork for them to look at.”
On the day after Memorial Day, Howard was allowing customers in the store by appointment only. Her phone number was posted on the front of the store to text for an appointment. Like most other businesses we visited, she required all customers to wear masks.
We spoke to a couple of the tourists just starting to return to Ocracoke. Bradley Upchurch from Raleigh and Trevor Hyde of Durham told us the remote Outer Banks island was the perfect place to take a break from the recent stresses of life.
Bradley pointed out, "It’s an easy place to get away from people." Trevor added, "We have our masks and protection gear we’ll be wearing."
Baker welcomes back any tourists that feel like their health will allow them to make the trip to Ocracoke this summer. She said, "Anyone that should come visit this beautiful place, which truly is beautiful and is rebuilding, should be respectful of recommendations set by state and individual businesses.”
As of late May, Hyde County Commissioner Tom Pahl, who lives on Ocraocke, said there had been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Ocracoke and only one case in the mainland portion of the county.
Earlier in the spring, Hyde County joined Dare County for some of the more strict regulations for visitors in North Carolina. Tourists were not allowed to visit the Outer Banks for several weeks. Those restrictitions were lifted on May 16.