Governor Cooper Issues Stay-At-Home Order
Gov. Roy Cooper has ordered North Carolina residents statewide to stay at home. The order started Monday at 5:00 pm. North Carolina’s 10 million residents will join about half of the United States who are or soon will be under stay-at-home orders from their governors in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Some communities in North Carolina had already ordered their residents to stay at home. Cooper called it “truly a matter of life or death.”
No one is immune and vaccination is “a ways off,” Cooper said during a Friday afternoon news conference. “As expected, our numbers continue to increase rapidly. This is a highly contagious virus,” he said. “We do not have the luxury of time,” NC Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said. “Our best weapon is social distancing. What we do today can save lives in the weeks and months to come,” Cohen said.
The stay-at-home order will last 30 days and end on April 29. It bans gatherings of 10 or more people, Cooper said. Those who go outside must maintain at least 6 feet of social distancing except around members of their family or household. Permitted reasons for leaving home include health and safety; outdoor activities; certain types of work; and getting necessary supplies and services for food, groceries, household supplies, items needed to work from home and for automobiles. Essential jobs that are exempted from the stay at home order include health care, public health, infrastructure, government operations, human services, food and beverage production, agriculture, media, financial and insurance institutions, and businesses that meet social distancing requirements. There are several exemptions for retail businesses deemed essential including restaurants and grocery stores, laundromats, bookstores that sell educational materials, hardware stores, lawn and garden retailers and gas stations and beer, wine and liquor retailers.
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis said the order was a difficult, but correct decision. “We’re all in this together, and in order to protect the health of North Carolinians and get through this crisis as quickly as possible, we must all do our part to contain community spread over the next several weeks,” Tillis said in a statement. Tillis said he’s glad the order, “allows essential industries to continue their important work while also providing flexibility to NC businesses that are able to practice social distancing and maintain a safe and healthy work environment to protect their employees and the general public.”
Cooper said Friday his office has given law enforcement agencies the order to review. “We hope and believe that people will voluntarily abide by this order because of the seriousness of it, and because it’s so easily transferred from one person to the other,” Cooper said. He said that law enforcement will remind people to comply with the order, but if people continue to “flagrantly” violate the order, police and district attorneys have the discretion under the law to charge and prosecute them. He said he hopes it doesn’t come to that. Read the full order here.
Government Revenue Losses
As businesses shut down temporarily, local governments and state agencies are starting to feel the impacts of lost tax and fee revenue that funds parts of their operations. The N.C. League of Municipalities, which represents the state’s cities and towns, recently wrote to Gov. Roy Cooper and legislative leaders outlining the budget challenges they expect to face due to the coronavirus crisis. And several state agencies are concerned about the fate of divisions that typically fund themselves through fees.
League of Municipalities President William Pitt wrote that cities and towns are “heavily dependent on sales tax revenue” generated by restaurants and other businesses that have been shuttered. “Cities and towns receive $1.2 billion annually in sales tax revenue, with that revenue stream representing more than 25 percent of many of their budgets,” Pitt told state leaders. “On the expense side, public safety makes up the largest portion of non-utility municipal operating budgets, and it is those personnel that we will be relying heavily in the weeks ahead.” Municipalities are also expecting “shortfalls” in utility revenue because many have stopped cutting off customers for failing to pay bills. The letter doesn’t make any specific request to state leaders but says municipalities are “committed to continuing to work with our state partners to address the challenges posed by our current circumstances.”
State agencies are also feeling the financial pain. During Tuesday’s Council of State meeting, Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry brought up her agency’s Elevator and Amusement Device Bureau, which would typically be out this spring inspecting carnival rides. Instead, most festivals have been canceled, and that’s cut out inspection fee revenues that fund the bureau. “We’re going to need to talk again about the severity of the cash flow shortage,” Berry said, adding that she’s “having a hard time getting the funds to keep our employees on the payroll.” State Budget Director Charlie Perusse responded that the state is already considering how to “buffer” the revenue losses, noting that state parks, museums and attractions that have closed have seen similar losses.
House Legislative Committee Discusses Covid-19 Economic Impact - Remotely
House Speaker Tim Moore and others last week outlined potential avenues for the legislature to address the coronavirus crisis. “This is an unprecedented time in our state and an unprecedented time in our legislature,” Moore told the first meeting of a special House committee on the issue. He said the economic support working group will need to tackle issues like offering tax relief to businesses through extensions, possible deferments or moving dates for filing to match those of the federal government. The goal is to make sure small businesses are not burdened unnecessarily. He also said he wanted to move deadlines for Department of Motor Vehicles matters and continuing education to keep people from standing in lines or worrying about deadlines. He also suggested funding economic support for businesses.
Moore broke down funds available for North Carolina. Lawmakers have set aside $3.9 billion in the unemployment trust fund and $1.1 billion in the savings reserve fund or rainy day fund. There is $2.2 billion of cash on hand in unappropriated funds, $184 million in the Medicaid contingency reserved and $74 million in the disaster relief fund. Moore also told the committee he expects to see hundreds of billions of dollars come to the state after the U.S. Senate passed a stimulus bill earlier this week.
Asked if he expects the state to consider stimulus checks, Moore said “the feds have this unique ability to print money that we don’t. When it comes to stimulus, the feds will take the lead. What I view the state role as being is more stabilization ... We know tax revenue is going to drop, so we need to be thinking ahead about that.”
The Senate isn’t holding any committee meetings for now, but Senate leader Phil Berger and Minority Leader Dan Blue issued a joint statement Wednesday after having a “lengthy meeting.” “We agreed that the best route was to survey the state for needs and come to a consensus with Gov. Cooper and the House for how to help all North Carolinians,” the two said in a news release. “In order to accomplish that we will ask senators with interest or issue-area expertise in COVID-19 to reach out to their community to compile specific ideas for how we can respond. ... Later this week we will hold a joint leadership call to provide updates on our efforts and discuss next steps.
Last week, state House lawmakers discussed changes to unemployment benefits and other laws in response to the coronavirus crisis. Some say some changes are too urgent to wait till the legislature’s scheduled return on April 28th. A draft bill filed Wednesday would finalize some temporary changes already made administratively by Governor Roy Cooper in the areas of jobless benefits and tax deadlines. But other changes have to be made by lawmakers, and leaders of the Economic Support working group that met Wednesday signaled they may push for a special session soon.
Legislative leaders have said for days the state needs to wait to see what the federal government does before taking action, and that no response bill is likely before the regular session resumes. However, Rep. Julia Howard, R-Davie, said Wednesday some changes may need to be made immediately. Howard said the most urgent need is to ease the strain on the unemployment filing system as it processes a record number of claims – more than 166,000 thousand in March, far exceeding previous records set in 2009. Allowing employers to file claims on behalf of all their employees would dramatically reduce the flood of applications, speeding up claim processing for everyone. “Now is the time,” Howard said, “to get those benefits out to the working public who need them, and the sooner we can do that, the better.”
In order to make changes to state law, the legislature has to meet and vote in person. The state constitution, Howard said, does not allow lawmakers to vote remotely. It’s not clear how that would work out safely for lawmakers. “We need to try to figure out a way to do that,” Howard urged the panel. “If it’s come into session one day, one morning, and everybody come in individually to the chamber as your name is called, I don’t know.”
House Speaker Tim Moore said he’s open to the idea. While some needs can be met quickly through administrative changes, that may not be the case for all. “I’m absolutely willing to come in whenever we need to come in to take care of this,” Moore told WRAL News Wednesday. “If it’s tomorrow, we’ll come in. and my members are ready to come in because we know whatever we need to do legislatively, we will.” More House working groups on healthcare and education will meet Thursday, again by video conference.
A joint statement issued Wednesday by Senate Republican and Democratic leaders seems to disagree. It says senators are doing community outreach and collecting ideas to bring back to session in April. “Senators and staff are well-equipped to take those suggestions and create a relief package that will be considered promptly when the General Assembly returns,” the statement says. WRAL News asked Senate Leader Phil Berger’s office whether they would support a special session if action is needed sooner. So far, his staff has not responded.
Caterpillar Inc. said Thursday it has temporarily closed an undisclosed number of production facilities in response to the COVID-19 virus lowering demand for its products. The company’s Progress Rail subsidiary operates a manufacturing plant in Winston-Salem with about 160 employees at last count. It also has production plants in Clayton, Goldsboro and Sanford. Company officials could not be immediately reached for comment on whether the Winston-Salem or other N.C. facilities are affected. “The continued spread of the COVID-19 pandemic is starting to impact Caterpillar’s supply chain.
Lenoir Community College Receives Grant for Renovation
Lenoir Community College has received a grant to renovate the college’s health sciences facility. U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced this week that the department’s Economic Development Administration awarded LCC a $2 million grant to renovate the Floyd Health Science Building on campus. According to an EDA press release, the grant, to be matched with more than $5 million in state funding and $115,439 in local investment is expected to create over 500 jobs.