The ability of fitness centers, gyms and health clubs to reopen statewide in early July could come down to how much North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper wants to test the veto support of Democratic state legislators.
House Bill 806 cleared the N.C. General Assembly in Raleigh with significant bipartisan support — 35-11 late Thursday in the Senate and 75-31 early Friday in the House.
HB806 would take effect immediately if it becomes law and would expire when Cooper’s Executive Order No. 141, which implemented the start of Phase Two of the state’s COVID-19 reopening plan, ends.
At full attendance, there needs to be at least 72 votes in the House and at least 30 votes in the Senate to override a governor’s veto. The current breakdown is 65-55 Republican in the House and 29-21 Republican in the Senate.
Cooper has 10 days to sign the bill into law, veto it or let it become law without his signature.
Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said Friday that the governor “will review the legislation before announcing action.”
“I wouldn’t count on Gov. Cooper going along with any bill that appears to contradict his pronouncements on reopening the economy, even if the measure had broad bipartisan support,” said Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst the John Locke Foundation, a conservative-leaning research group based in Raleigh.
Another potential pandemic reopening bill, HB795, would have affected amusement parks, arcades, fairs, carnivals and public playground.
The Senate approved that bill 33-14 vote, with five Democrat voting in favor.
However, the House voted 101-4 to not concur with the Senate changes out of concerns that the bill’s language dealing with arcades and gaming might create a loophole for video-sweepstakes business to reopen.
As a result, legislature analysts say it is highly unlikely that HB795 will receive additional action this year.
Currently, two more economic-reopening bills — HB258 (amusement parks, arcades) and HB686 (Fourth of July events) are on Cooper’s desk, having cleared the legislature Tuesday.
Senate Bill 105, which involves Council of State oversight over governor’s executive orders, cleared the legislature early Friday as well.
Those three bills are likely to end up being vetoed, as were HB536 (private bars and clubs) and HB594 (private bars and clubs, and fitness centers) because they contain language that gives the Council of State oversight of a governor’s executive orders.
The General Assembly would be able to conduct a veto override vote when it next meets, currently scheduled for the week of July 6.
Cooper vetoed 14 bills during the 2019 legislative session with three unsuccessful override attempts.
During the 2020 session, Cooper has vetoed two bills with one unsuccessful override attempt so far. The veto override attempt on HB595 failed Wednesday by a 66-53 vote with just one Democrat in support.
The 10-member Council of State comprises the state’s top elected officials, currently six Republicans and four Democrats.
Each GOP council member has expressed their desire to fully reopen the state’s economy sooner than Cooper and Dr. Mandy Cohen, the N.C. secretary of health, have wanted.
As for SB105, the House voted 64-49 along partisan lines Thursday in favor. There were six Democrats and one Republican who did not vote. The state Senate voted 26-17 early Friday. The vote count was not available.
The sponsors of SB105 opted to put certain Council of State requirements into its own bill.
For example, the governor would have just 48 hours to ask the council for its concurrence on a potential executive order before it could be issued. The governor would need the majority of council members to approve proceeding with the order.
Several Democratic legislators have called the Council of State concurrence requirement as “a poison pill,” while Cooper said the requirement would delay unnecessarily his administration’s ability to respond to a public-health emergency.
“The lesson from the past year is that if backers of a bill are unable to secure a veto-proof majority for a bill on initial passage, they are highly unlikely to secure a veto-proof majority on a veto override of that bill later on,” said John Dinan, a Wake Forest political science professor who is a national expert on state legislatures.
The John Locke Foundation’s Kokai said Cooper and the Democratic Party establishment “have been effective for the past two years in convincing legislative Democrats not to cross Cooper on a veto override. If Cooper rejects a bill, expect many legislative Democrats to follow suit.”
“That will hold true unless those Democrats feel immense pressure from their constituents to break with the governor,” he said. “Bills that passed with less than veto-proof majorities are essentially dead in the water.”
Phase Two extended
Under Phase Two of Cooper’s three-part plan to reopen the state’s economy, which began May 22, he chose to keep closed several businesses that had been projected to reopen with similar 50% capacity limits that restaurants and personal-care services must observe.
Those businesses include bars, nightclubs, public playgrounds, gyms and fitness centers, movie theaters, bowling alleys, bingo parlors, and museums.
On Wednesday, Cooper extended the Phase Two restrictions in what he called a pause until July 17.
Cohen, the state’s health secretary, has recommended keeping fitness facilities closed until Phase Three. She has said the facilities carry higher risk for spread of the virus in part because individuals working out are breathing harder and respiratory droplets can be discharged at greater distances.
Cohen could not be reached for comment Friday about the passage of HB806.
Gyms await word
The YMCA of Northwest North Carolina said in a statement Friday that “as a general practice, the YMCA will not comment on anything political in nature.”
“Since we closed our branches on March 16, (we) have created an operational plan that puts the safety of our members and staff at the forefront,” the statement said. “We will only operate our indoor facilities in a safe, responsible manner when we are allowed to do so.”
Dixon Douglas, the owner of the CycleBar studio in downtown Winston-Salem, said he understands and respects the Cooper administration’s public-health stance.
As Douglas has awaited permission to reopen, “I am accountable, as the studio owner, to do everything in my power to provide a safe place to ride. At this time, I am confident I have done that.”
He noted several hygiene improvement steps he has taken in the past three months, including air purification, fewer touch points, a sensored water dispenser and a studio fogger to kill all virus particles.
“Until we get word to reopen, we are still carrying out our studio mission of building community virtually and on our open air patio,” Douglas said.
“We are ready.”