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Lawmakers to Cooper: Show us the science

N.C. House leadership ask for data justifying continued emergency order

Gov. Roy Cooper, right, greets workers at a StarMed clinic in Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday, June 3, 2021.
Gov. Roy Cooper, right, greets workers at a StarMed clinic in Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday, June 3, 2021.

It has been 450 days since Gov. Roy Cooper put North Carolina under a state-of-emergency order due to the COVID pandemic.  State lawmakers are demanding concrete information on when it will end.

On Tuesday, leaders in the N.C. House formally asked Cooper to provide the scientific data used to justify continued emergency restrictions. In a letter sent to the governor, House Majority Leader John Bell, R-Wayne, and House Majority Whip Keith Kidwell, R-Beaufort, penned a letter asking for the metrics Cooper is using to continue the emergency order the state has been under for 15 months.

“There seems to be no urgency or plan from Gov. Cooper to end North Carolina’s state of emergency. This is deeply concerning — and the people of North Carolina deserve answers,” Bell wrote on his official Facebook page.

The state has been under an emergency order since March 10, 2020. The current order continues to require restrictions on certain businesses, saying they “are prohibited from operating unless they follow all applicable restrictions stated in these Sections.” Restrictions include the continued requirement of face masks in summer camps, schools, childcare, and health care facilities. The current order also continues to require face coverings in airports, rideshares, and transportation services. The order empowers state and local law enforcement to enforce the orders and to use civil, not criminal, penalties to shut businesses in noncompliance.

These are the remaining in a series of businesses singled out for closure under Cooper’s orders. Bars remained closed for nearly a year, while restaurants with bars operated in a limited capacity. Schools and parks closed while big-box chain stores kept doors open.  The disparities became a source of anger in the business community because the data justifying them did not seem to be readily available to the public.

The lawmakers now want the governor to provide a clear goal line and any related metrics that he requires to lift the emergency order completely.  This week Virginia’s Democrat Gov. Ralph Northam announced that he will not renew the state’s emergency order when it expires on June 30.  South Carolina’s Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, ended his state’s emergency order on Sunday, saying emergency authority is no longer needed.

“Vaccines are widely available, cases are at new lows, and capacity restrictions are completely lifted,” said the letter from Bell and Kidwell.

“The people of North Carolina have worked extremely hard to follow and adhere to social distancing guidelines and restrictions. They deserve more information and transparency in this process. We respectfully ask that you provide the legislature and the citizens of this great state with the specific details of how and when the emergency order can be lifted,” it continued.

Growing frustration over the ongoing emergency order helped prompt a bill that would rewrite the state’s Emergency Management Act, sponsored by Bell, Kidwell, and two Republican colleagues.  The Emergency Powers Accountability Act would require Council of State concurrence for some emergency powers. A state of emergency would end within seven days unless the Council of State authorizes it to last longer. The Council of State would then need to vote to continue the state of emergency every 30 days.  It passed the N.C. House in March with only Republican support.

North Carolina’s current law allows the governor to declare a state of emergency at any time, and it does not end until the governor declares it to be over. During such a period, the governor has broad powers to regulate gatherings, close schools, shutter businesses, or mandate evacuations. The Emergency Powers Accountability Act sits now in the state Senate’s Rules Committee.

“A year ago, when the shutdown order was entered, most people in our state didn’t believe that the governor had the ability to shut our entire state down. Most people assumed there were at least some forms of checks and balances on that sort of measure,” said Rep. Destin Hall, R-Caldwell, in presenting the bill to colleagues. Hall and Rep. Tim Moffitt, R-Henderson, sponsored the measure along with Bell and Kidwell.

“Our state is going to face other emergencies in the future,” Hall said. “We’ve got to build public trust in an emergency situation. The way we do that, try to take the politics out of it, is through a deliberative process. This bill would give us that deliberative process.”

Tuesday’s letter from Bell and Kidwell points to the progress made in vaccine distribution and reduced transmission and hospitalizations due to COVID. It asks for the data used to justify a continued emergency order. According to a press release from Cooper’s office, more than 8.3 million COVID vaccine doses have been administered across the state, with more than 53% of adults at least partially vaccinated and 49.2% of adults fully vaccinated.

Nearly 80% of the state’s people who are 65 and older, those most at risk of dangerous complications, have been at least partially vaccinated.

Cooper’s office has not responded to a request for comment as of this publishing.