Opinion: Daily Journal

Cooper’s proposals lack a critical fourth ‘T’: Transparency

Gov. Roy Cooper at a COVID-19 briefing. (Pool photo from N.C. Department of Public Safety)
Gov. Roy Cooper at a COVID-19 briefing. (Pool photo from N.C. Department of Public Safety)

Today, I want to tell North Carolinians that in order to ease restrictions we need to make progress in three areas: testing, tracing, and trends,” Gov. Roy Cooper said during his Wednesday, April 15, news conference.

At least one more “T” was missing from the governor’s outline: transparency. Yes, Cooper’s rival Lt. Gov. Dan Forest posted the sentiment on Twitter. But it’s a valid concern we’ve raised since early March, when Cooper issued his first emergency order tied to the COVID-19 outbreak.

We’ve sent questions to the governor, asking for details of his blueprint for what he began calling “the new normal.” So far, the response? Crickets.

We’ve registered to ask questions at his regular news conferences. So far, we’ve been shut out.

But this isn’t about us. More than 10 million North Carolinians have a right to know when they can hope to return to work, to school, to church, to family and friends and other social gatherings. They deserve to know with some detail how the new normal might be phased in. What might speed up the process and what could slow it down.

We’re not getting that from our chief executive. Instead, we get a nine-page PowerPoint presentation, with paper-thin details. We get assurances the governor’s executive orders don’t step on constitutional rights. (Nonsense, even if some impositions, briefly and narrowly, are defensible.) We’re left with more questions than answers. Too much uncertainty. It can’t stand.

To be fair, the governor didn’t ask for this. No one but the most power-mad central planner would envy the position Cooper — and every political leader — faces. Navigating a global pandemic caused by a highly contagious virus with no proven treatment or cure.

Forced isolation is the only guaranteed way to slow the spread. But staying at home can’t last forever, or even much longer. The economic shutdown is causing its own health problems. Poor nutrition. Inadequate care for people with chronic medical issues. Depression and mental illness worsened by enforced quarantines. Among others.

While Cooper generally has offered calm and resolve, he needs to do more. He needs to offer clarity, information, and insights. 

For instance:

• At Monday’s news conference, the governor spoke of the “team” helping him make decisions. He’s not said who’s on it. Is it the COVID-19 Task Force he formed in February, from what this video shows made up (with the exception of NC Chamber CEO Gary Salamido) of government officials or trade association representatives of public employees? No one else from the private sector. No business owners. No bankers. No economists, from what I can tell.

If this isn’t the team, who is? Is his advice coming almost exclusively from people with little expertise in innovation and entrepreneurship? Are they urging too much caution at the expense of the state’s economy and our ability to support ourselves?

• Tuesday, more than 100 people descended on Raleigh, protesting the loss of their livelihoods through no fault of their own. A woman was arrested after police broke up the gathering. The Raleigh Police Department said the woman was violating an executive order banning gatherings of more than 10 people rather than exercising her constitutional right to petition the government.

On its Twitter feed, RPD went further: Protesting is a non-essential activity

The governor and spokesman Ford Porter didn’t clear things up. In a text message Tuesday to WRAL, Porter restated the RPD’s position. Protests can be restricted based on time, place, and manner — that’s correct — but the order doesn’t mention fundamental constitutional rights.

Cooper said much the same when asked about it Wednesday.

Really? By the time the woman was arrested, the protest had ended. She was the only person left … if you excluded the cops, who weren’t exercising safe social distancing.

Are protests now illegal if more than 10 people are involved — even if the protesters have spread themselves out?

• Meantime, Wake County has expanded its crackdown on religious activity. An amendment to its initial order allows drive-up religious services but bars the distribution of literature or communion elements or accepting hand-delivered financial donations.

These limits are tougher than those a hungry customer faces at a restaurant drive-through window. You still can hand the cashier your debit card … or cash. Chicken sandwiches? No problem. Communion wafers? See you in court.

Don’t get me wrong. Along with other free marketers, I’ve long thought economic liberties and civil liberties should be protected similarly by the constitution and the law.

Indeed, Article I, Section 1 of the N.C. Constitution recognizes “all persons [have] certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, the enjoyment of the fruits of their own labor, and the pursuit of happiness (emphasis added).”

Article I, Section 13 addresses religious freedom, saying “no human authority shall, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience.”

The state constitution protects the right to earn a living and the right to worship as you see fit. As my John Locke Foundation colleague Jon Guze notes, neither the governor nor a group of local officials can restrict constitutional liberties willy-nilly. Before doing so, he said, “First, [the restrictions] must further a ‘compelling governmental interest.’ Second, they must be ‘narrowly tailored’ so that they achieve their objective in the least restrictive way possible.”

Looks like these fail the second test if not the first.

The governor has stuck by his insistence that his orders are the floor, the lightest penalties imposed. If counties want to clamp down even more, have at it.

For an alternative to Cooper’s wafer-thin approach, a thoughtful model was developed by the American Enterprise Institute’s Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, alongside several colleagues with solid credentials in public health and regulatory practice.

It envisions four phases of recovery: slowing the spread; reopening state-by-state; providing protection as physical distancing is relaxed; and preparing for the next pandemic.

The AEI suggestions may be too stringent. Or not strict enough. But the presentation is thorough enough to invite comment, debate, and consideration. Cooper’s isn’t.

We deserve better.