Despite eased restrictions, lawmakers press ahead with effort to allow more fans at high school, college games

Posted February 24, 2021 6:34 p.m. EST

— Gov. Roy Cooper's decision to ease some of the restrictions he's had in place to limit the spread of coronavirus isn't stopping a legislative effort to allow more fans in the stands at high school and college athletic events across North Carolina.

Citing improved trends in the state's fight against the virus, Cooper announced Wednesday that outdoor entertainment and sports venues, including high school stadiums, can allow up to 30 percent capacity in the stands. Indoor venues can have 30 percent capacity, but only up to 250 people.

Lawmakers have been pushing the governor to loosen restrictions since last summer, when the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed legislation to reopen bars, bowling alleys and gyms. Cooper vetoed every one of them.

House Speaker Tim Moore said the message to the governor has been clear: It's time to start reopening, especially with the current downward trends.

"Some of the restrictions arguably go too far, and we have some businesses that are really hurting," Said Moore, R-Cleveland. "North Carolina has lagged behind most of our neighboring states in terms of reopening, so I'm glad the governor has taken this step. But it certainly is the direction the General Assembly has been pushing."

In the past month, another 10 reopening bills have been filed, from requiring schools to offer in-person classes to allowing some districts to hold outdoor graduation ceremonies. A couple of bills address attendance at sporting events.

Sen. Todd Johnson, R-Union, said Wednesday he filed his "Let Them Play and Let Us Watch" bill last week in response to an online petition with more than 45,000 signatures asking that the 100-person cap at outdoor high school sporting events be lifted.

"Family and friends can safely watch loved ones compete, but right now, they’re simply not allowed to. That needs to change," Johnson said at a news conference.

Senate Bill 116 would allow up to 40 percent capacity at outdoor high school events, following all safety guidelines. A bill in the House calls for 25 percent capacity.

"I'd be just as satisfied if Gov. Cooper changed the rules on his own. As a matter of fact, I would prefer that," Johnson said, hours before Cooper announced the eased restrictions.

"I would like to see Gov. Cooper make these changes before we have that opportunity," agreed Sen. Danny Britt, R-Robeson, a co-sponsor of the bill.

But Johnson said in a Wednesday evening email to WRAL News that he doesn't think the governor's 30 percent capacity for outdoor stadiums goes far enough.

"[I]t doesn’t make much sense to me to allow 50% capacity inside restaurants, where it’s physically impossible to always wear a mask, and allow only 30% capacity at wide open outdoor sports venues. Unless I hear a compelling reason for that difference, I plan to move forward with my bill," he wrote.

Cooper said his moves merely follow the pandemic trends, and they're not a response to any legislative pressure.

"We have listened to lawmakers and have talked to them," he said. "But the controlling issues are from the science and the data, and I think you can see that in the decisions that we have made from Day One.

"If we were still where we were in December, you wouldn't see [an easing] from us," he added, "regardless of what other pressure would be put on by any people, any lawmakers or anyone else. We are sticking to the science and health data."

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