By John Trump
Carolina Journal News Service
RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper says he won’t take North Carolina backward. He says he isn’t ready to levy another lockdown because of COVID-19.
Still, he intimated Tuesday, Nov. 17, that added restrictions remain in bounds.
The governor in a news conference announced the implementation of a County Alert System. It pinpoints counties with the highest levels of viral spread and offers specific recommendations to bring numbers down.
Counties will be coded as red, orange, and yellow, with red classified as “critical.” They’re assigned respective colors according to the rate of cases — the number of new cases in 14 days per 100,000 people — the percentage of positive cases, and impacts to hospitals. That last metric takes into account the number of hospitalizations, staffing, and available beds. The map will be updated every four weeks, a news release says.
Cooper called the county metric system a starting point. These are recommendations, he said several times Tuesday. People in counties designated as red or orange should work to limit social activities and reduce public interaction, restrict travel to essential activities, and to work from home when possible. Ten counties were red Tuesday.
“We have to take strong steps now,” Cooper said.
The Raleigh City Council, in “yellow” Wake County, voted Tuesday to cancel all fairs, festivals, races, and other official gatherings through March 31.
Should the number continue to increase, according to the state’s science and data, Cooper says he would consider statewide or local requirements to compel compliance, through another executive order, for example.
“We will do what we need to do to protect the health and safety of North Carolinians,” Cooper said Tuesday.
Cooper last week tightened restrictions on indoor mass gatherings, dropping the maximum allowed gatherings from 25 people to 10. The current executive order, moving the state into Phase 3 of reopening, expires Dec. 4. Bars, closed since March, reopened only for limited outdoor seating. And it’s getting cold outside.
The new limits, which took effect just in time for Thanksgiving, don’t apply to schools or churches. The state health department’s website on Tuesday says 1,501 are hospitalized with COVID-19, though hospitals aren’t overwhelmed.
Cases are up, state statistics show, and though 4,852 people have died — from causes related to the virus, the state says — 81% were 65 or older.
Nevertheless, Cohen said, hospitals are strained.
Cooper again Tuesday discouraged larger families from celebrating Thanksgiving, encouraging smaller gatherings and referring to his 10-person limit.
The measure, though, is tough to enforce and many local law agencies have been reluctant to buy in. State residents remain anxious over another COVID-19 lockdown, and worries exist about neighbors informing on neighbors, alerting authorities to so-called illegal gatherings.
Cooper and state health secretary Cohen say they’re counting on increased cooperation from local authorities.
“If this does not happen, we may have to do more,” said Cooper, also referencing a pair of promising vaccines, which could be available to some by year’s end. Still, it could be months before an approved vaccine is widely available.
Cooper said it would be foolish to let down our collective guard, with the vaccine so close. Like punting at your opponents’ 10-yard line, he said.
The health department late last month wrote 36 counties asking officials “to consider additional local actions to improve compliance.” Suggestions included shuttering bars, tightening restrictions on restaurants and gatherings, and fining businesses for not enforcing Cooper’s mask mandate.
Carolina Journal reached out to all 36 counties, and officials from 19 counties said they’re unlikely to reverse economic reopening. Many of the targeted counties are rural, and dominated by Republicans skeptical of Cooper’s lockdowns.
“Instead of pushing local governments to bully the citizens of North Carolina, the governor should enhance efforts to protect those most at risk,” said Lauren Horsch, spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham.
Cooper has held the virtual news conferences since March, as well as his monthly meetings of the 10 elected members of the Council of State, which he continues to bypass. The Council of State holds some authority over gubernatorial emergency powers. The General Assembly has passed multiple bills to strengthen the Council of State’s ability to check Cooper’s emergency powers. Cooper vetoed them.
COVID-19 is surging globally, news outlets report. States that in the past weeks and months have slowly reopened are closing down again. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, announced that the state was “pulling the emergency brake” on its reopening plan, reinstating broad restrictions across much of the state, the New York Times reported.
Governors in Rhode Island and Massachusetts issued stay-at-home orders, and Philadelphia is prohibiting most indoor gatherings through Jan. 1, NPR reports.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, is sticking to one of the most permissive approaches to the pandemic — allowing bars, restaurants, theaters and theme parks to operate at full capacity, the Wall Street Journal reports. DeSantis has vowed the state would never again implement lockdowns, the newspaper says.