After Michelin North America President Alexis Garcin and local and state business leaders convened for a roundtable meeting Thursday at Michelin’s Greenville headquarters, the global tire company announced that it would donate 50,000 masks to underprivileged communities across South Carolina — especially as children return to school in a few weeks.
“Michelin is grateful to join its state and local leaders from health care and education as we strongly urge our neighbors to remain vigilant and follow the safety protocols as COVID-19 cases continue to surge across the states,” Garcin said. “The continued presence of the virus in the states is deeply concerning to all of us, especially as students and teachers prepare for a new school year. The actions that we take over the next several weeks can positively impact and enrich the education experience for students in our state.”
For him, tamping down the virus started in the workplace at Michelin’s 19 manufacturing sites in the United States. Plants closed down in March, and while plants and corporate headquarters have since reopened, temperature checks, social distancing and masks for employees who “move” and are likely to come in contact with others are mandated. He said a second economic shutdown would have a dramatic impact on not only the state’s economic health, but also the lives of employees, families and neighbors.
“We wanted to speak altogether, representing different businesses and organizations across the state from health, education, including local governments or businesses like Michelin, to say with one voice that we need to act now,” he told GSA Business Report, especially with the repercussions another semester of students at home could create in the workplace following another spike in COVID-19 cases.
When the company saw an opportunity to extend its influence further afield, the Michelin contacted several suppliers — including some in house — to distribute the masks via the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Garcin said he appreciated local government taking initiative on enforcing mask-wearing, especially the S.C. Department of Education, in firming up plans to return to school.
“Moving forward doesn’t always mean moving fast,” he said. “Right now, we need to focus on moving with purpose.”
Participants in the roundtable meeting included Garcin, Bell, Spearman, Greenville Mayor Knox White, Bon Secours Chief Clincal Officer Dr. Marcus Blackson, S.C. Manufacturers Association CEO Sara Hazzard, Prisma Health Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Wendell James, Greenville County Council Chairman Butch Kirven, Greenville Chamber CEO Carlos Phillips and representatives from DHEC and Greenville County Schools.
Business and political leaders including Molly Spearman, S.C. education superintendent, and Dr. Linda Bell, state epidemiologist, also shed light on the current status of COVID-19 cases in South Carolina after the roundtable discussion.
“Every day that we don’t all do our part, we’re extending the duration of … hospitalizations, of absenteeism and deaths in our state,” Bell said.
Bell echoed that South Carolina now has a 20% positivity rate among those tested for the virus. More than 1,700 patients are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 among 76,315 confirmed cases. COVID-19 has killed 1,294 people in the state with an additional 40 probable deaths, according to DHEC statistics.
With school set to start in a couple weeks in accordance with the state’s current plans, Spearman emphasized that parents need to take responsibility for preventing the spread at home so their children don’t take the virus to school.
“All of us know that children need to be back in school safely and as soon as possible,” she said. “This is usually the happiest time of the year when those kids go back to school. Parents are happy; children are excited. The businesses are excited because everyone’s buying school supplies. It’s a great time of the year, but this year, there has been so much uncertainty.”
Spearman also noted that the S.C. Education Department is still working to approve district plans based on local circumstances with a goal of establishing face-to-face classes five days a week while keeping students and teachers safe.
“We’re watching you, Greenville,” she said, adding that the state often looks to Greenville for leadership on following through with social distancing guidelines and other measures, whether in or out of the classroom.
Following the conference, Spearman acknowledged Greenville County Schools’ plans to require mask wearing for both students and teachers, and said the state has already reached a “high spread” level that could predicate enforced mask wearing in districts across the state.
“We are at that point,” Spearman said, adding that mask ordinances were a recommendation from the AccelerateED task force. She did recognize challenges in enforcing masks but said she does not expect every student to be in class once August rolls around.
“I think the reality of every school opening five days a week, it’s not possible at this moment. I would like to get there, but we want to do it safely,” she said. E-learning in fall 2020 will be different from the emergency switch to online classes in the spring, according to Spearman, including higher expectations for students, more interaction and greater organization.
As for business owners managing employees with children at home during the next school year, Spearman noted that creative solutions would be necessary.
“I know this is difficult for businesses and their employees to figure out how can their folks come back to work if school is not open full time,” she told GSA Business Report. “I would encourage them to work with their school districts.”