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Cooper grilled by GOP officials over Phase 2 decisions

Posted May 22, 2020 1:07 p.m. EDT
Updated May 22, 2020 1:33 p.m. EDT

— An informational meeting of the Council of State on Friday quickly turned into a partisan grilling, with the Republican majority criticizing Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper for not reopening bars, gyms and other businesses more quickly during the pandemic.

State Treasurer Dale Folwell and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, Cooper's opponent in the November gubernatorial election, led the questioning, with Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey, Labor Secretary Cherie Berry and Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson also weighing in.

The first half of the meeting was a presentation by state Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen to go over the state's coronavirus data and pointing out trends to watch.

Cohen said that, although the data is "largely stable," an uptick in hospitalizations this week, coupled with two of the highest daily numbers yet for new cases, are causes for concern.

"We are still in what epidemiologists would call an accelerating phase," she said.

Each activity where people gather, especially indoors, comes with a certain level of risk, Cohen said, and public health officials are trying to choose among them carefully to avoid a spike in new cases.

"What we were trying to do is take a measured approach and not do all of the high-risk things at the same time," she explained. "I think this is more like a dimmer switch than an on-off."

"I think it’s important for us to do this in a cautious way," Cooper added. "It’s a process, and it needs to be gradual, and it needs to be careful."

But Republicans questioned whether reopening bars might actually be less risky in some cases than restaurants. They argued that five weeks is too long for businesses to have to wait to reopen.

Cooper has said that the second stage of a three-part plan to resume business and social activities during the pandemic would last at least five weeks.

"The economic problems that we’re seeing have become very real," Troxler said. "If we can make decisions earlier than five weeks, I certainly would encourage that."

"The feedback that I’m getting from the public, the vast majority of these people [is] people are more concerned about the economy and their personal livelihood than the coronavirus at this point," Causey said.

Folwell challenged Cooper to commit to reopening gyms and bars immediately, saying many had spent a great deal of money preparing to reopen in Phase 2 because that's what the governor had proposed on April 23, when he first announced the three-phase plan.

"I really ask that you not only focus on the sick but you do not punish the healthy," Folwell said. "The people of this state, when they’re told something a month ago about what Phase 2 was going to look like, and when it ended, they could [not] count on what was said, I think that is a very terrible thing."

"We have said from the beginning that what we want to do is carefully and cautiously reignite the economy, keeping public health as the guiding star. We’ve also said that we must be flexible," Cooper responded. "We’ve also said there’s a potential that we could go backwards."

Folwell asked Cohen about whether "false death certificates" are mistakenly attributing other deaths to COVID-19 in North Carolina or whether doctors are listing deaths as virus-related even if a patient dies of another acute problem.

Cohen said North Carolina does not use death certificates to determine coronavirus fatalities.

"The data we are reporting is physician-reported COVID deaths," she said, adding that she had not heard of any doctors using post-mortem testing of people who've died of other causes to look for the virus.

Folwell also asked whether hot weather would stop the virus' transmission, a claim frequently made by President Donald Trump.

Cohen replied that, while the virus seems to prefer colder weather, there's little evidence so far that hot weather slows it down very much. Brazil, she pointed out, is "having one of the worst outbreaks in the world, and it’s hot there."

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