News: Quick Takes

Secretary Cohen’s new restrictions not enforceable, but they could foreshadow executive action

N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen at a May 2020 COVID-19 briefing. (Pool photo)
N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen at a May 2020 COVID-19 briefing. (Pool photo)

Stay home. Wear a mask at all times. Don’t interact with anyone outside your household. If you do, get tested for COVID-19, N.C. Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Mandy Cohen has directed the people of North Carolina in a new set of toothless requirements from state government.

She reiterated those concerns in a news conference Friday, Jan. 8. She called the COVID-19 situation in North Carolina “critical.”

Cohen’s guidelines come in a so-called “secretarial directive” issued from her office this week and are more stringent than Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive orders. Cohen’s edict doesn’t carry the force of law and isn’t enforceable. It could, however, foreshadow new restrictions Cooper could adopt in coming weeks.

What’s in the directive?

In the memo from Cohen’s office, North Carolinians “are directed to adhere to” a stringent set of requirements, including: 

  • Wearing a mask at all times and keeping 6 feet from others when outside the home.
  • Not going inside any space where a person is unmasked.
  • Staying home at all times unless going to work or school, seeing a doctor, or buying food.
  • Avoiding meeting with people from outside your home.
  • Getting tested for COVID-19 if you meet with someone from outside your household.

These rules are significantly more restrictive than Cooper’s most recent executive orders, which allow gatherings of 10 people indoors and 50 people outdoors, and direct people to stay home from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., with exceptions.

Cohen’s memo says the directive is in response to recent record-high levels of new COVID cases and hospitalizations. 

What is a secretarial directive? 

The secretarial directive has raised eyebrows in a state that has grown accustomed to the governor’s executive orders but hasn’t encountered this type of directive. While Cohen can issue directives to her own employees, there doesn’t appear to be a mechanism in N.C. law for a cabinet secretary to issue directives that are binding on the people of the state.

In a set of FAQs distributed alongside the directive, DHHS acknowledges that Cohen’s guidelines are “not enforceable through civil or criminal penalty.”

What comes next? 

Cooper’s most recent executive order expires Jan. 29. Already, pressure is mounting on his administration to take more draconian steps to attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus. In a letter sent to Cooper’s office Friday, the N.C. Nurses Association urges him to implement more restrictions on gatherings, masks and social distancing. 

Andrew Dunn is a freelance writer covering N.C. politics.