As lawmakers push for more openings, Cooper to address possible end of Phase 2
Posted June 23, 2020 5:22 p.m. EDT
Updated June 24, 2020 6:23 a.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — On Wednesday, Gov. Roy Cooper is expected to announce if North Carolina will propel into Phase 3 this week or stay in Phase 2.
Although cases and hospitalizations continue to climb, the General Assembly on Tuesday sent two more bills to Cooper seeking to reopen part of North Carolina's economy despite his closure order to limit the spread of coronavirus.
House Bill 258, which cleared the House on a 66-49 party-line vote, would allow amusement parks, arcades, reception and party venues and fairs and carnivals to resume operations.
House Bill 686, which passed 67-47, would prevent cities from using pandemic restrictions on mass gatherings to block Fourth of July parades and fireworks displays sponsored by private groups.
The push comes as the governor is expected to announce Wednesday whether North Carolina will move this weekend into the final part of his three-phase plan for resuming business and social activities during the pandemic.
His executive order that put the state into Phase 2 of the plan on May 22 expires on Friday.
Although WRAL News sources couldn't confirm Tuesday what Cooper might do, the governor and Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, have repeatedly expressed concern in recent weeks about the continued upward trend of coronavirus infections and hospitalizations.
More than 54,500 people statewide have been infected by the virus since early March, with about 60 percent of those cases reported during Phase 2. Nearly 1,300 people have died during the pandemic, and state officials estimate that almost 37,000 people have recovered following their infections.
The state also has more than 900 people hospitalized with COVID-19, the illness associated with the virus. That number has repeatedly set new high marks in the past couple of weeks.
Cooper delayed entering Phase 1 at the beginning of May and could extend Phase 2 as well, based on the unfavorable trends.
Republican lawmakers have questioned Cooper's actions during the pandemic, saying there doesn't appear to be a cohesive plan behind it.
"We have one person – not a plan," said Rep. John Bell, R-Wayne. "We have one person picking winners and losers across the state. Can somebody tell me what is the actual reopening plan?"
Lawmakers and business owners who expected to reopen in Phase 2, such as bars and gyms, have complained that all businesses can operate under the restrictions set for restaurants and others: half capacity, social distancing requirements, masks for staff and strict cleaning protocols.
"Every day, I talk to bar owners across the state of North Carolina that are about to lose everything. The governor sees that," said Zack Medford, the owner of Isaac Hunter’s Tavern in downtown Raleigh, which has been closed for more than 90 days.
Rep. Perrin Jones, R-Pitt, an anesthesiologist, said people are going to have to learn to live with the virus long term.
"It would be helpful if we could all agree that we want the best outcome for the state and its citizens," Jones said. "We need to find a balance, a balance between weighing the concerns that we have over our public health [and] other ways that this has impacted our society, whether it comes from educational concerns, economic concerns [or] recreational concerns. We have to find that balance."
But Democrats said health experts, not the legislature, should decide when and how to reopen businesses. Rep. Scott Brewer, D-Richmond, noted that the reopening bills carry no enforcement mechanism to penalize businesses linked to new virus outbreaks.
"We've got to put public health first and not politics first," Brewer said.
"What are you doing ... to stop the spread of COVID?" Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, asked GOP lawmakers. "I see a lot of things to increase the spread of COVID, but I see nothing to stop the spread of COVID. We've got a lot of reopen this, reopen that, [but] nothing to protect our citizens."
Jackson noted the lack of compliance in the legislature with Raleigh's new requirement that people cover their faces in public. He said that would help slow the spread of the virus without hurting businesses, but many lawmakers won't wear masks.
"What is your plan? Just reopen everything and let the virus ravage?" he asked.