News: CJ Exclusives

County’s order to shelter in place shouldn’t signal statewide shutdown, expert says

Charlotte, NC
Charlotte, NC

Mecklenburg County’s order to keep residents at home shouldn’t signal a statewide shutdown, one expert says.

In a decision that spawned questions about public transparency and accountability, Mecklenburg County Commissioners announced a shelter in place to fight the spread of COVID-19 on Tuesday, March 24. The order means residents can’t go to work, leave their homes, or travel unless jobs and activity are considered essential. Commissioners made the announcement after a multi-county conference call from Gov. Roy Cooper. Only two journalists were present, and commissioners didn’t begin live streaming to the public until one hour into the meeting, tweeted Joe Bruno, a reporter for Charlotte’s WSOC-TV. 

That controversy aside, counties have every legal right to take such emergency measures, said Jon Guze, director of legal studies at the John Locke Foundation. State law allows commissioners to make emergency decisions to protect communities during pandemics or natural disasters. 

“Flexibility is good,” he said. “Being able to respond to local knowledge of local conditions is good.” 

But even if a complete shutdown is necessary in Mecklenburg County, where a majority of the state’s coronavirus cases have emerged, that’s no reason for the whole state to be shut down, Guze said. 

Still, Cooper has that option, and has said as much during multiple news conferences over the past week. On March 17, Cooper shut down dining rooms in restaurants and bars across North Carolina, an order contested by some members of the N.C. Council of State. Cooper said he had the legal power to move without permission from the COS, but Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and State Treasurer Dale Folwell said the governor pushed the decision through without giving the state’s top executives time to weigh in properly.

On Tuesday, the governor sent a letter to the federal government, asking Washington to declare a major disaster in North Carolina. 

“It’s important that we help North Carolinians stay protected from the health impacts of COVID-19 and recover economically from the financial impacts this crisis is having on our state,” Cooper said.

A statewide shutdown would cripple the economy, Gary Salamido, executive director of the N.C. Chamber, said in a news release March 21

“The disruption a shelter-in-place order would generate for the private sector, and for North Carolina citizens whose financial well-being and overall welfare depends on their ability to work, cannot be underestimated,” Salamido said. “It would fashion a massive disturbance that could create the opposite of its intended effect by interfering with the very economic activity that is protecting our state and its citizenry from disaster. This concern has been shared with Governor Cooper and his team.”

Carolina Journal emailed Governor Cooper’s office, asking which county commissioners he spoke with on the conference call and if he urged any counties to issue shelter-at-home orders. At press time, the governor’s office had not responded.