News: CJ Exclusives

Cooper tightens restrictions as state treasurer questions COVID-19 measures

State Treasurer Dale Folwell at the August virtual Council of State meeting. (Screenshot from treasurer's Facebook page)
State Treasurer Dale Folwell at the August virtual Council of State meeting. (Screenshot from treasurer's Facebook page)

Gov. Roy Cooper moved North Carolina backward in economic reopening in another virtual news conference that shut out conservative publications. 

Cooper tightened restrictions on indoor mass gatherings, dropping the maximum allowed gatherings from 25 people to 10 people. He said he is targeting family groups and community gatherings, like those held around Thanksgiving.  

The new limits, which take effect at 5 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13, won’t apply to schools or churches. Cooper didn’t say whether he will require travelers to quarantine if they’re coming from out of state, but he confirmed such measures remain “on the table” during a press conference Tuesday.  

Cooper has held virtual meetings and news conferences since March. The virtual format allows him to screen reporters and shut out media outlets he chooses not to address. State Treasurer Dale Folwell argues that North Carolina residents deserve open, transparent meetings.

“We have to be willing to challenge an assumption without someone having the ability to adjourn the meeting by hitting a button,” Folwell said in his monthly “Ask Me Anything,” Tuesday, Nov. 10. “Not having open, transparent conversations … it’s beyond bizarre.”

Governors in most neighboring states hold in-person news briefings, where reporters can ask questions. The governors of Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, and Tennessee all host news briefings in person, reported the News & Observer

Cooper still uses a teleconference service, and he screens reporters by publication. He rarely takes questions from Carolina Journal. Other media outlets, including North State Journal and WBT, met similar results.

Cooper, a Democrat who has apparently won re-election, held another closed meeting Tuesday afternoon. CJ was poised to question Cooper about the in-person meetings. But Cooper hasn’t taken questions from CJ in months.

CJ reached out to Cooper’s press team after the meeting to ask when Cooper will return to holding in-person press conferences. It received no response at press time. 

“We’re entertaining a very dangerous and uncertain time in the holidays,” Cooper said. “It’s colder, and the virus is more active indoors, so we’re ratcheting up the prevention measures to let people know this is serious.”

The monthly meetings of the 10 elected members of the Council of State have also remained virtual since March. The Council of State holds some authority over gubernatorial emergency powers. The General Assembly has passed multiple bills to strengthen the Council of State’s ability to check Cooper’s emergency powers. Cooper vetoed them.

Republicans kept their 6-4 majority on the Council of State in the November election. The lieutenant governor, state superintendent, and labor commissioner remained Republican. 

Folwell pushed to meet in person, saying that virtual meetings stifled discussion of the pandemic and the lockdowns.

Folwell has been a vocal critic of Cooper’s lockdowns, calling them “one size fits none” measures that wreak economic destruction.

“If you can put 24 people on a school bus, you can sure as hell can figure out how to fit 10 Council of State members in a 600-square-foot room,” Folwell said. “The ability in these meetings when the conversation gets a little unpleasant, to hit a button and say we’re adjourned — I don’t think that is in the best interests of the citizens of N.C.”

Folwell pushed for “toothbrush meetings” — or meetings so intense that a toothbrush might be required. He wants Cooper to draw on the expertise of the members who lead the executive agencies. Folwell said Cooper did not answer his communications, and that he was not informed of the governor’s reopening plan. 

Those who violate the new limits on mass gatherings can be charged with a Class 2 misdemeanor, a criminal charge which carries the risk of jail time. 

“Hope is on the horizon. This pandemic will end,” Cooper said. “With our continuing determination, by next Thanksgiving or even sooner, we can put this pandemic behind us.”

North Carolina has been shut down for almost 240 days since the coronavirus outbreak began in March. 

“We have businesses that have been around for generations that are never going to reopen,” Folwell said. “Not everybody can make a living through a Zoom call. … These folks are being disproportionately impacted by the lack of transparency, lack of consistency, the lack of data, and the lack of ability to challenge assumptions.”