A pair of reopen North Carolina bills became Tuesday the latest proxies for the contentious socioeconomic debate over the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given the vote counts in the N.C. House for House Bill 258 and House Bill 686, they could face vetoes from Gov. Roy Cooper, as did two other reopen bills.

Cooper will hold his next press conference at 3 p.m. today, where it is expected that he will address, if not unveil, his next phase step for the state’s economy.

Meanwhile, the House late Tuesday placed a potential veto override vote on House Bill 594 on today's floor agenda that begins at 1:30 p.m. That bill would allow for a partial reopening of private bars and clubs, along with fitness centers, gyms and health centers.

House speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, began the floor session by saying any attempt to override HB594 will not take place before 3:30 p.m. today.

HB258, approved by a 66-49 vote, would permit the reopening of amusement parks — such as Carowinds — carnivals, arcades, fairs and venues that host parties and other social gatherings.

It also affects certain dining and beverage establishments at outdoor stadiums.

HB686, approved by a 67-47 vote, would allow for mass gatherings of Fourth of July parades and celebrations from 5 p.m. July 1 through 5 p.m. July 10.

Neither the governor nor local government bodies could prohibit those gatherings.

Those in attendance could not be cited for violating any public-health local or executive order, and no one could be held in civil liability for an individual contracting the virus “unless the act or omission amounts to gross negligence, willful or wanton conduct, or intentional wrongdoing.”

Like the vetoed House Bill 536 and House Bill 594, HB258 contains what Cooper and most House Democrats consider as a poison pill.

All three bills place public-health regulatory limitations on Cooper, the state’s health secretary and state’s environmental quality secretary in reapplying capacity restrictions on bars, clubs, fitness centers, gyms and health clubs.

Cooper and administration officials would be required to gain the concurrence of the majority of the 10-member Council of State, which is comprised of six Republicans and four Democrats.

Each council member would have to be contacted for their opinion. Each GOP council member has expressed their desire to fully reopen the state’s economy sooner than Cooper and state health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen.

Cooper said in his veto of HB594 that “tying the hands of public health officials in times of pandemic is dangerous, especially when case counts and hospitalizations are rising. ... The bill could restrict leaders who need to respond quickly to outbreaks and protect public health and safety.”

House Republican leaders applied the gut-and-replace strategy Tuesday to Senate Bill 105 to insert language that would require the governor to gain Council of State approval to extend any public health emergency order beyond 30 days.

The bill also would require council approval for the governor's authority to supersede that of local governments in certain emergency situations, including if local government officials were not cooperating or their ability "is insufficient to assure adequate protection for lives and property."

The bill would give the secretaries of departments of Health and Human Services and Environmental Quality, as well as local health directors, certain authorities to assist in abating an imminent hazard during a state of emergency.

Sprinter’s pace

Rep. Scott Brewer, D-Richmond, said Tuesday that while the three reopen bills contain some good public health and hygiene guidelines, “there’s some really bad parts of it.”

“One is overruling the governor’s authority to deal with urgency situations if our (COVID-19) numbers spike, as it looks like it may do,” Brewer said.

“The states that have fully reopened have seen huge number spikes, and that’s what our future looks to be. It also overrules my local boards and county commissions ... and puts the power in the hands of the General Assembly.

“There is no enforcement mechanism because this body has not declared a public-health emergency,” Brewer said.

Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, favors passing HB258 in part because of job opportunities created by amusement parks, such as Carowinds.

Rep. Perrin Jones, R-Pitt, and an anesthesiologist, said his view on the pandemic has been drawn in large part from caring for COVID-19 patients.

“As a state, it would be helpful if we could all agree that we want the best outcome for the state and its citizens,” Jones said.

“At some point, we need to move from the sprinter’s pace that we had at the beginning of this disease to more of a 10-K or marathon pace as we deal with it over the next 12, 18 to potentially 24 months.”

Jones said the sprinter’s pace was the stay-at-home order.

The marathon pace “represents finding a balance between weighing the concerns we have over our public health, as well as how it has impacted our society, whether educational concerns, economic concerns or recreational concerns,” Jones said.

Rep. John Bell IV, R-Wayne, and House Majority leader, said Cooper’s reopening phases to date have been “loaded with ambiguity” in terms of which businesses have been allowed to partially reopen to customers and which have been kept closed.

“These well-crafted, well-drafted, well-implemented, much talked about phases just weren’t clear, and didn’t seem to have a great deal of parity,” Bell said.

“Show us the plan, governor, show us the plan.”

Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, and House Minority leader, challenged Bell and other House Republicans to disclose their public-health plans, rather than focusing mostly on economic plans.

“If you don’t like that (Cooper’s phases) plan, what is your plan?” Jackson asked.

“What is our plan to stop the spread?

“It can’t simply be to just reopen everything and just let (COVID-19 cases) keep on greatly increasing and running rampant throughout our population. I can’t believe anyone in this room want that.

“This is a deadly virus. I don’t want to shut down businesses and go back to Phase zero or Phase One,” Jackson said.

Override prospects

At full attendance, House Republicans need the votes of at least seven Democrats to override a veto.

HB258 had one Democrat vote, while HB686 had three. There was no GOP no vote on HB258 and one for HB686.

Cooper has 10 days to sign the bills, issue a veto or let the legislation become law without his signature.

On Friday, Cooper vetoed House Bill 594, which would allow for a partial reopening of private bars and clubs, and fitness facilities. The House passed the bill 69-50 on June 10.

Cooper vetoed House Bill 536 on June 5. That bill, passed 65-53 on May 28, would allow for a partial reopening of private bars and clubs.

“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.

Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation, said that “I would expect the governor to consider vetoing any bill that opposes his schedule for reopening the economy.”

“If the Cooper administration were making decisions solely on the basics of data and metrics, it would be easy to gauge how quickly North Carolina would be moving from one stage of reopening to another.

“But the governor’s decisions have appeared to proceed on more of an ad hoc basis.”

rcraver@wsjournal.com

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