The six Republican members of the N.C. Council of State are pressing Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper for an emergency meeting to discuss accelerating second phase of the state’s three-part plan for reopening the state. The second phase is projected to begin May 22 at the earliest.
The GOP members include N.C. Treasurer Dale Folwell, who spent five days in the hospital after contracting COVID-19, and N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, both from Forsyth County. The Council of State has four Democratic members, led by Cooper.
The council last met the morning of May 5 — about eight hours before Cooper approved Executive Order No. 138 that allowed for phase one of his reopening plan — a limited relaxing of his statewide stay-at-home orders. The next scheduled meeting is June 2.
Under phase two, restaurants could offer dine-in services s long as they reduce capacity and adhere to social-distancing guidelines.
Such businesses as bars, fitness centers and personal-care services could also reopen if they can follow safety protocols, potentially including a reduced number of patrons. Indoor gatherings at reduced capacity would be allowed at houses of worship and entertainment venues.
Although acknowledging “the understanding that we will be dealing with COVID-19 for the foreseeable future,” the GOP council members stressed that “the rest of the Southeast, and the majority of our country, (are) already providing structure and clarity to struggling businesses and workers (and) North Carolina is lagging in communication.”
Folwell said the COVID-19 infection affected his respiratory system, producing a severe cough, according to a news release on Folwell’s state website. Folwell didn’t become incapacitated during his hospital stay and didn’t need to be put on a ventilator.
Some employees at the state treasurer’s office went into quarantine having been exposed to Folwell, along with others he was in contact with before his hospital stay.
“As a COVID survivor, I don’t think I will be the same, and I’m not sure the state will be the same either,” Folwell said.
“There is a fine line between the public health virus and the economic virus,” he said, “and we need to challenge assumptions on both sides to see if they need to be changed, using policies, transparency, communication and data.
“Let’s be clear,” Folwell said.
“Anyone who thinks it’s about politics isn’t thinking about the economic inequality and distress that is afflicting North Carolinians. Citizens and city/county governments are losing the war on the second virus, the economic one.”
Cooper stressed on May 5 that moving forward with phase one was not influenced by pressure from the business community or protesters, including ReOpen NC. Cooper said Tuesday that he has offered to conduct a Council of State briefing on the pandemic.
“Pandemics cannot be partisan,” he said, citing that he signed unanimous COVID-19 relief bills May 4.
Cooper said his administration is making decisions “reliant on the science and facts to tell us when we need to reopen. The health of our people and the health of our economy go hand in hand.”
When asked about potentially beginning phase two before May 22, Cooper said, “We need to look at all of our indicators and benchmarks over a 14-day period ... to get a true read of what is happening.
“None of these indicators by themselves can give us the signal about when we need to move into phase two.”
The letter is the latest of at least five public comments directed at Cooper: statements May 9, Tuesday and Wednesday from N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham; a letter asking for clarity on rules about indoor worship gatherings sent Friday by the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association; and a statement released Monday by 18 state Senate Republicans concerning restrictions on indoor worship service.
On Wednesday, Berger questioned why Cooper hasn't allowed hair salons and barber shops to reopen in Phase 1.
"Hair salons and barber shops are primarily small businesses, and Gov. Cooper's executive orders have prohibited them from earning a living," according to a statement from Berger's office
Berger said that "it's time to follow the lead of the majority of states in our region and the country. Hair salon owners and employees can't work and many of them still can't get unemployment assistance from the Cooper administration. "
"Gov. Cooper needs to provide counties with the flexibility to reopen hair salons and barber shops if they choose.
"The majority of states in our region and the country have reviewed the science, facts, and data and reached a different conclusion than Gov. Cooper's. What is his strategic endgame in choosing a different path based on similar facts and data? We need a view into his administration's goals and thinking."
Meanwhile, the sheriffs’ association said its members “have been hearing from citizens and religious leaders asking if they will be arrested for attending their worship service, or if their worship service will be shut down” under Executive Order 138.
The GOP members of the Council of State questioned how phase one allows for additional customer capacity at retail stores but not for indoor worship services. The sheriffs’ association recommended similar capacity limits for retail stores and worship services.
The sheriffs’ association said Tuesday that as a result of conversations with Cooper’s office, “new important clarifications” were issued related to the executive order. “In situations where it is not possible to conduct worship services outdoors or through other accommodations — such as through, for example, a series of indoor services of 10 or fewer attendees, or through online services — the 10-person attendance limit on indoor worship services does not apply.”
The association said that “hopefully, this additional guidance on behalf of the governor will resolve the concerns that have been raised by citizens and religious leaders across the state.”
Cooper stressed Tuesday that the comparison between retail and worship service capacity is not apples to apples.
“There’s a big difference,” he said. “At retail, people are moving around and you don’t have as much of a chance to spread the virus.
“There’s a significantly greater chance when people are sitting or standing indoors close together.”
Cooper said his administration is “aware of First Amendment rights and want to protect them.”
“What we’re hoping, he said, is that ministers and church leaders will put the health of their congregations at the head of their thinking ... realizing it is still dangerous to hold indoor services with more than 10 people.”
The GOP members on the council wrote, “We also need the ability to provide clarity to businesses across our state that are dangerously close to permanently closing. And we need clarity as to why you aren’t allowing specific industries to open as our neighboring states have done.”
Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s health secretary, said on May 5 that “phase two will only start if data and indicators are in the right place.”
The GOP council members told Cooper that they view White House guidance on how to reopen state economies as “not a law or a mandate, and it allows maximum flexibility down to the county level.”
“The fact that North Carolina is faring better in cases and deaths on a per-capita level than the rest of the nation, and that the majority of deaths are from government-regulated congregate living centers, proves that our citizens can properly social distance and abide by COVID-19 business regulations,” they wrote
Statewide as of Tuesday morning, about 76% of COVID-19 cases have come from outside nursing homes, residential care facilities and correctional facilities.
However, 61.8% of deaths statewide have come from inside those facilities.