Gov. Roy Cooper has extended the state's COVID-19 emergency response for another six weeks — until July 30 — saying it is necessary to keep pivotal state and federal pandemic relief programs in place.
Executive Order No. 220 retains the remaining social-distancing and public-health policies that could have expired at 5 p.m. Friday, including a mask requirement in schools, childcare medical settings and other public places.
The responses fit within the statewide emergency order that Cooper declared in March 2020. The latest executive order does not serve to extend the overall state of emergency order.
“We are seeing tremendous improvement with fewer cases, hospitalizations, deaths and safety restrictions, but this is no time to hang up a 'Mission Accomplished' banner in our fight against the pandemic,” Cooper said in a statement.
“We are laser focused on getting more shots in arms, boosting our economy and protecting unvaccinated people from the virus."
Cooper has cited as an example that 46% of adult North Carolinians have not received even one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
"This executive order is essential for those efforts," Cooper said.
By comparison, South Carolina’s Republican Gov. Henry McMaster ended its state of emergency Monday. Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has said he has no plans to extend his state of emergency order beyond June 30. New Jersey's Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy said his order will end July 3.
"The governor and state health officials continue to monitor North Carolina’s trends and review actions of other states and plan to continue lifting restrictions, as more people are vaccinated and the state winds down pandemic response efforts," according to the news release.
Pressure to end
Cooper has been facing pressure from state Republican legislative leaders to either end the emergency order now, or at least set a firm expiration date.
State House Majority Leader Rep. John Bell IV. R-Wayne, and House deputy Majority Whip Rep. Keith Kidwell, R-Craven, sent a letter to Cooper on Tuesday asking him to clarify his reasonings for keeping the statewide emergency order active.
They said they want to know "the specific metrics and data that will need to be met for it to come to an end."
Bell and Wayne said they found it "deeply concerning" that Cooper recently said North Carolina remains in the middle of the pandemic.
"Vaccinations are widely available, cases are at new lows and capacity restrictions have been completely lifted," the House members wrote.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported Friday a statewide 1.6% positive test rate for COVID-19, along with 425 new cases and 19 additional coronavirus-related deaths.
The statewide case count is at just over a million and the death toll is at 13,265.
"There seems to be no urgency or plan to end the emergency. We believe this is unsatisfactory," Bell and Kidwell wrote.
"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."
On Friday, Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth, said that as "North Carolina is getting back to a sense of normalcy, I recognize the need to remain vigilant."
"Some of the provisions of the executive order, I believe, are good. Many of the flexibilities are common sense. Relieving overly burdensome restrictions are always good policy."
However, Krawiec stressed that "I do believe that the state of emergency order is unnecessary at this time, and causes unnecessary fear and anxiety."
Cooper said keeping statewide emergency order in place provides the following advantages:
State evictions prohibitions remain effect through at least June 30;
Face coverings are required in public transportation, schools, health care and childcare facilities, in accordance with federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance;
Unemployment insurance remains flexible in terms of claims filing and work-search requirements;
Continuing presence of N.C. National Guard personnel for pandemic relief initiatives.
There has been criticism of keeping masking guidelines in place for the rest of the 2020-21 school year.
Cooper and state Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen have said they hope that there will be enough middle- and high-school students vaccinated between now and the start of the 2021-22 school year to provide school districts with the flexibility to go without masks in indoor settings.
Cooper said that, under the emergency order, North Carolina has easier access to federal funding that includes Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursements.
NCDHHS is able to maintain expanded access to healthcare and Medicaid services, and food and nutrition programs.
Cooper also cited the Summer Cash drawings unveiled Thursday, saying they were organized using tools made available by the statewide emergency order.
The lottery features four $1 million cash prizes, four $125,000 drawings toward post-secondary education, and a provision allowing two entries for each newly vaccinated person.
Too much power?
Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, said Cooper should end the emergency order precisely because of how well the bulk of North Carolinians have listened to recommendations from Cooper and Cohen.
"The governor made it clear early on that (a positive COVID-19 test rate) below 5% was a critical goal to return to normal," Lambeth said.
"We have shots still being given, we have people in the hospital trending down, as are deaths.
"It is time to get real and drop these emergency orders," Lambeth said.
Copper's decision to extend the statewide emergency order by another six weeks "is based more on (his) desire to maintain control over people’s activity and to keep the federal money spigot open," said Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation.
"North Carolinians have been dealing with COVID-19 for well over a year. For better or worse, steps taken to reduce the likelihood of exposure to the coronavirus are not novel. They are now part of normal day-to-day activities.
"It’s not good for long-term constitutional safeguards to have an emergency order in place from March 2020 to July 2021, and perhaps even longer.”