Gov. Roy Cooper told the grassroots group ReopenNC on Monday, April 20, that recent executive orders and local ordinances limiting “mass gatherings” shouldn’t interfere with North Carolinians’ right to protest, worship, or exercise other First Amendment liberties. The lawyer representing ReopenNC told Carolina Journal that Wake County officials agree with the governor’s decision.
ReopenNC, an organization started on Facebook, has urged the governor to let a stay-at-home order he imposed March 27 expire as scheduled April 29. The group, which has more than 60,000 members, staged a protest April 14 across the street from the Legislative Building in Raleigh and planned demonstrations 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Tuesday until the stay-at-home order and other decrees limiting social and commercial activity are lifted.
The March 27 order requires residents to stay at home unless engaged in essential activities defined in the order — and if they were, they should practice social distancing, remaining at least six feet apart unless they live in the same household. It builds on earlier orders Cooper issued barring table service in restaurants and private clubs, limiting gatherings to 100 (and eventually 10) people, and closing hair and nail salons, gyms, and schools, among other businesses.
Orders issued in Wake County went further, initially declaring gun shops “non-essential” businesses and outlawing some drive-through religious services. The county reversed the gun-shop ban.
The Monday letter, from Cooper lawyer William McKinney to Raleigh lawyer Anthony Biller of the Raleigh office of Michael Best & Friedrich, suggested the local orders went too far. Cooper said Executive Order 121 does place limits on outdoor protests. But it doesn’t ban them as long as participants practice social distancing. Cooper said “many participants” at the April 14 protest didn’t comply, so law enforcement was allowed to intervene and break up the protest.
One ReopenNC member, Monica Ussery, was charged with a Class 2 misdemeanor for violating an executive order. She has a court date in June.
The letter says the executive order “provides room for outdoor protests to continue, just as [it allows] for the expression of other First Amendment liberties, including the free exercise of religion and the right to a free press.”
Biller told Carolina Journal his clients were “very pleased” with the governor’s response.
The group has another protest scheduled Tuesday, April 21, outside the Executive Mansion. Organizers have asked participants to practice social distancing and remain peaceful.