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Despite protests, lawsuit, Cooper urges churches to follow restrictions

Gov. Roy Cooper speaks at a COVID-19 news briefing May 14, 2020. (Pool photo)
Gov. Roy Cooper speaks at a COVID-19 news briefing May 14, 2020. (Pool photo)

Gov. Roy Cooper is urging churches to follow restrictions prohibiting indoor services, but acknowledges law enforcement officers’ leeway in choosing what to enforce. 

His statements were made during a news conference Thursday, May 14 — the same day hundreds of people protested the issue in downtown Raleigh. 

Cooper has faced a backlash over his executive order banning most indoor church services and prohibiting mass gatherings of more than 10 people. The order caps funeral attendance at 50 if held inside a church. Churches still can host services outside with social distancing measures. 

A collection of churches filed a federal lawsuit Thursday accusing Cooper of violating the First Amendment. A Johnston County sheriff has also publicly refused to enforce restrictions prohibiting indoor services in churches.

“Law enforcement obviously should have discretion over the laws they’re going to focus on or not,” Cooper said. “We hope local law enforcement will continue working with people, and continuing to take steps to keep them safe, and that includes churches and all of the other restrictions we’ve put in place.”

Cooper said sitting or standing in one place indoors for more than 10 minutes increases the risk of spreading the virus. 

“One fundamental tenet of faith is to care for and love one another,” Cooper said. “Regardless of executive orders, I would ask every congregation to pause and consider whether indoor services are the right thing to do right now.”

Cooper hasn’t decided whether he would move forward to the next phase of reopening the economy May 22. He has also raised the potential of more lockdowns to protect against an unmanageable virus surge.

“But we are hoping that it will be a statewide move if our indicators say we can,” Cooper said. “North Carolina is making progress. It’s a careful, cautious first step. It’s important to remember that his virus is still a threat.”

At the time of the news conference, North Carolina had 16,507 confirmed cases, with 615 deaths and 507 hospitalizations. Almost 60% of deaths are linked to nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, while 85% are in people older than 65.

State Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen presented a series of graphs showing North Carolina is seeing level or lowering percentages of positive tests for COVID-19 as testing expands. Hospital admissions are flat.

Cooper is also facing pushback from Republican leaders who want to reopen the economy. 

“Is his strategic endgame to prevent much of the population from ever becoming infected? Does he believe that is possible?” asked Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, in a news release. “Or is his strategic endgame to manage the virus as it naturally spreads through the population — to protect the highest-risk groups while seeking herd immunity through the young and healthy first?”

Cooper has repeatedly argued his decisions are based on scientific data. 

“Our COVID-19 decisions are guided by the data and science,” Cooper said. “We will use the time in this Phase One to keep a careful eye on the indications before we move into Phase Two.”

Cooper also said he will release a testing plan for prison employees.