“North Carolina will remain paused in Phase Three for the next three weeks,” Governor Roy Cooper announced at a coronavirus briefing today held in anticipation of the expiration at 5 p.m. Friday of his latest executive order that initiated the phase on Oct. 2.
His new executive order extending Phase Three without any further easing of restrictions will expire at 5 p.m. on Nov. 13, when the COVID-19 political landscape, nationally and on a state basis, may look quite different.
The Governor also spoke strongly today in support of enhancing “prevention efforts” by local officials and said that a letter from two secretaries in his administration had gone out recently to some counties statewide, encouraging them to take steps to enforce statewide COVID-19 safeguards and to toughen those safeguards, if necessary.
Local officials “could use restrictions that are greater than the State floor,” Governor Cooper said, “. . . to attack the virus specifically in their communities.”
This is a position that the Governor has long held–encouraging municipalities to act independently–but he has never been so direct in advocating for local action.
In the face of COVID-19 data that show all of the four key metrics trending upward—especially daily case reports and hospitalizations—the Governor emphasized enforcement and “working hard to bring community leaders together to take action.”
Both the Governor and Dr. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services, who analyzed the latest data, attributed this month’s spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations to increased “informal social gatherings” and “religious settings” in which people do not wear masks or social distance.
As they did last week, they stressed that people cannot let their guards down in get-togethers with close friends and family members with whom they do not live. Even at home, in small parties, they said, people need to wear masks.
“Ignoring the virus does not make it go away,” Dr. Cohen said, “just the opposite.”
In response to a reporter’s question about the role that Phase Three may have played in the rising data trends, Dr. Cohen replied first that people “are frustrated and not doing the three Ws.”
But she also acknowledged that the easing of restrictions in Phase Three is a “piece” of the current declining situation.
The letter sent to the counties came from Dr. Cohen and Erik A. Hooks, secretary of the N.C. Dept. of Public Safety, the Governor said. It suggests that local officials consider taking further prevention steps, such as using civil penalties or fines for violations of State mandates, as well as expanding upon the State’s safeguards.
Mr. Cooper advised, for example, that a municipality could lower the number of people who may gather in mass gatherings, down from the State’s currently allowed 50 outdoors and 25 indoors, or end local alcohol sales earlier than the State’s 11 p.m. curfew.
A municipality also could impose its own mask mandate, subjecting people who are in noncompliance to the risk of criminal penalty, which the State mask mandate does not do.
(UPDATE: The Raleigh News & Observer reported today that the letter went to 36 of North Carolina’s 100 counties. Included among them is certainly Mecklenburg County, where Charlotte is located, which is a hotspot for COVID-19.)
N.C. MASK MANDATE
The State’s so-called mask mandate was ordered by the Governor in Executive Order 147, which was issued June 24. It requires people to wear face coverings when they are or may be within six feet of another person in specific settings, including all retail establishments, restaurants, personal care businesses, child-care facilities, and other close-contact space, but it does not make the failure to do so a misdemeanor offense.
(In long-term care facilities and other health-care settings, the wearing of a face covering is mandatory in North Carolina—unless one of the EO’s exceptions applies—without regard to social distancing.)
The Beacon has never liked the Governor’s means of enforcement of the mask mandate because it does not make noncompliance a crime and, therefore, it compromises law-enforcement officers’ authority and restricts their options.
It was clear today from the Governor’s answers to reporters’ questions about the mask mandate’s enforcement that law-enforcement officers statewide have not actively intervened to reduce noncompliance. They generally have tolerated people’s refusal to wear masks.
It is little wonder. Under EO 147, law-enforcement officers may charge a business owner with violating the mask mandate if the owner does not ensure that his or her employees and customers wear face coverings, but officers have little recourse for dealing with a maskless customer.
EO 147 authorizes police officers to step in only after a customer is first asked to wear a face covering and refuses to do so, and then is asked to leave the premises and will not. Then the police may charge the recalcitrant customer with trespassing or another appropriate criminal violation, but not with violating the mask mandate.
The executive order specifically states: “Law enforcement personnel are not authorized to enforce the Face Covering requirements of this Executive Order against individual workers, customers, or patrons.”
Before Governor Cooper declared EO 147, Dare County had in effect a mask mandate with more teeth to it.
Dare provided in its emergency mandate for criminally charging and prosecuting individuals who did not wear face coverings. After the State imposed its mask mandate, however, the County declared the State’s order preemptive, effectively rescinding its own order.
The County chose to do take this action; it did not have to do it. Now Governor Cooper is asking those counties with COVID-19 outbreaks and deteriorating metrics to consider putting teeth into their own mask mandates and have local law enforcement enforce them.
The Governor also pointed out that “local health departments have authority to enforce safety precautions,” too.
More effort must be made, he said, “to stem the tide that we see coming at us” with colder temperatures and more people gathering indoors.
“The virus is everywhere here in North Carolina,” said Dr. Cohen.
(UPDATE: DARE COUNTY REPORTED SIX NEW COVID-19 CASES YESTERDAY, FIVE OF THEM RESIDENTS.)
Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 10/21/20