Lawmakers vote to reopen NC bars despite governor's order

State lawmakers voted Thursday to allow bars to reopen in outdoor spaces, overriding Gov. Roy Cooper's executive order that has closed them since March.

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Laura Leslie
, WRAL Capitol Bureau chief, & Matthew Burns, WRAL.com senior producer/politics editor
RALEIGH, N.C. — State lawmakers voted Thursday to allow bars to reopen in outdoor spaces, overriding Gov. Roy Cooper's executive order that has closed them since March.
Legislation would allow bars to serve patrons in outdoor spaces, permanent or temporary, at 50 percent of the capacity of their indoor area, with social distancing guidelines from the CDC and the state Department of Health and Human Services.

House Bill 536 would also allow restaurants to set up temporary outdoor spaces to serve customers in the same way. Restaurants are currently limited to 50 percent of their capacity, and the outdoor seating could bring them up to 100 percent, or close to it.

The measure would be in effect until Oct 31 or until the executive order is lifted.

The Senate voted 42-5 in favor of the bill, while the House vote was a much closer 65-53.

Even before the House vote, Cooper indicated he would veto the bill.

"I believe there will be a time when we can reopen bars, but that time is not now," the governor said during an afternoon news conference. "We've got to keep the health and safety of North Carolinians as the No. 1 priority."

The bill's sponsors say it's a lifeline to bars and restaurants that are "hanging on by a string," allowing those that have access to outdoor space to set up temporary areas to serve more customers.

"I'm going to ask our businesses to show – prove it to us – that you appreciate what we're doing by giving you this chance and operate in an effective and efficient and safe manner," said Sen. Rick Gunn, R-Alamance.

But it also takes away the power of the governor and local authorities to close them down again if another spike in coronavirus infections should occur, and critics of the bill say that's a dangerous move.

"To assume that everybody’s going to behave and there’s not going to be a second wave and we can pretend there’s not a deadly virus going through our community seems to me to be irresponsible when we could include in this a safety switch for a second wave," said Sen. Natasha Marcus, D-Mecklenburg.

Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, said bars don't have any incentive to protect their workers or their customers, as lawmakers recently passed legislation insulating businesses from lawsuits by people who contracted COVID-19 in their establishments.

"Where are we going to draw the line?" Jackson asked, wondering whether gyms and other businesses that are pushing to reopen will be part of future legislation. "This is a bad precedent for the gyms and the other clubs that will come next. I think it's bad for public health."

But Rep. Keith Kidwell, R-Beaufort, said Cooper didn't have the authority to shut the bars in the first place and shouldn't be allowed to keep them closed.

"I take offense to the fact that the governor steps on my rights to th efruits of my labor, and when I say 'my,' I'm talking about every person in this state," Kidwell said. "The governor does not have that authority. The governor should not have that authority."

Cooper said the measure could hurt public health. Local and state public health officials need to have the authority to close bars – or other venues – if they become infection hotspots, he said.

"If you do this, what's next? Are we going to have all of these laws in place that limit the flexibility of health care officials who are making on-the-ground decisions?" Cooper said. "We don't know what COVID-19 is going to do. We don't know what's ahead."

Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, agrees.

"These are incredibly difficult decisions," Cohen said in a statement. "The measures we have taken have been informed by public health experts, science and North Carolina’s data to protect people from this highly contagious and, for some, very dangerous virus. Today’s legislative action was not informed by any of those things."