News: CJ Exclusives

New bill would reopen gyms and bars, though governor hints he would veto it

The N.C. Senate plans to vote Tuesday, June 9, on legislation that would reopen gyms, bars, and expand in-person dining at restaurants. Sen. Rick Gunn, R-Alamance, tweaked existing and vetoed legislation so that Gov. Roy Cooper would sign it.

Cooper on Friday vetoed H.B. 536, which would have reopened private bars and clubs, as well as expanded outdoor seating in restaurants and brewpubs. The governor hinted at a Monday news briefing he wouldn’t let the tweaked legislation become law.

The measure combines H.B. 536 and H.B. 594, which covers gyms but remained in legislative committee. The tweaks give the governor a “fail-safe,” Gunn said, to again close the businesses should COVID-19 surge enough to overwhelm hospitals. A majority of the 10-member N.C. Council of State would have to agree with such a move. Six members on the council are Republicans.

Cooper, a Democrat, signaled all along he would veto the bar bill, worried that  lawmakers were taking away some of his power.

That’s not the case, Gunn said.

“Council of State concurrence has been in an emergency authority statute for decades,” Gunn said in a news conference Monday, June 8, announcing the bill. “It is nothing new and should not be controversial at all. It’s a standard operating procedure.”

The number of people applying for unemployment in North Carolina has reached 1 million, Gunn said. Every state bordering North Carolina has reopened gyms, bars, and restaurants.

“I’m simply tired of wasting time and watching these businesses flounder,” Gunn said Monday.

“The Cooper administration hasn’t explained how the science, and facts, and the data make it OK for thousands of people, including the governor himself, to gather in the streets without social distancing or mask, but one person can’t sit outside a pub and sip a drink.”

During debate, some Democratic senators intimated opposition for opening private bars and clubs amid a pandemic, which may surge in the fall. Natasha Marcus, D-Mecklenburg, for instance, said the move opens a gateway into dangerous, unknown territory.

“This bill needs a safety switch,” she said.

Sen. Wiley Nickel, D-Wake, was unequivocally direct. But he said what probably many of his fellow Democrats were thinking.

“We’re taking power away from the governor, and I don’t trust this body to give it back,” Nickel said. “Because it takes power away from the governor, I do not support it.”

Legislation isn’t the best way to open these businesses, Cooper said in his news conference Monday, after Gunn’s. Cooper said he’s considering a Phase 2.5 reopening, but enacting something in state law would inhibit local control and would limit how quickly the state could act in again closing businesses.

“I’m not going to haggle over this issue while I watch companies go bankrupt and individuals and citizens remain unemployed,” Gunn said Monday.

Cases of COVID-19, as well as hospitalizations, continue to rise in North Carolina, Cooper said Monday. But of the 1,006 state residents who died of COVID-19 as of Sunday, 83% are 65 or older, state health department data shows.

The “science” behind Cooper’s decisions, says Gunn, is inconsistent.

Cooper has allowed businesses such as hair salons and tattoo parlors to reopen while keeping others, namely gyms and bars, closed. Gunn said it’s time to give business owners some certainty.

“This is about being equal to businesses,” he said. “This is about a level playing field. This is about fairness to all businesses.”

Business owners badly want to reopen. And lawsuits from owners of gyms, bars, and restaurants seeking to reopen continue.