‘Punishing the healthy.’ Republican leaders press Cooper to reopen NC gyms, breweries

Republican elected officials pressed Gov. Roy Cooper on not reopening some businesses Friday that were previously mentioned as being on the table for the next step in easing economic restrictions, including bars and gyms.

Phase Two of reopening starts at 5 p.m. Friday.

At a Council of State meeting Friday morning, state schools Superintendent Mark Johnson wanted to know if breweries, wineries and distilleries fall under restaurants or bars in the latest executive order. Cooper said his administration’s legal team is getting ready to put out guidance for that. In the meantime, the executive order does not clarify whether they can reopen.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and other Republican Council of State members sent the Democratic governor a letter asking for a COVID-19 update for North Carolina. Some had also asked for the update during the last council meeting. A special meeting was called for Friday, and consisted mostly of questions by those Republican members. Forest is running against Cooper for governor.

“I think it would be helpful for the kind of fear and panic side of this that exists out there, especially in certain populations, that there is more information,” Forest said.

Forest questioned picking some businesses over others to reopen.

Forest, Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey and Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler all questioned the length of Phase Two, which ends June 26.

“Five weeks is an awfully long time,” Forest said.

NC Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said it’s important to see COVID-19 trends over a period of time.

Cohen responded to Forest’s questions, while both Cohen and Cooper responded to other Council of State members’ questions.

‘Begging’ Cooper to reopen gyms

State Treasurer Dale Folwell, who is recovering from COVID-19, noted that this was the first time “duly elected statewide officials” could question the governor about his reopening decisions.

Folwell said that gym owners spent thousands of dollars expecting to reopen Friday. He said that first responders and law enforcement officers in particular need to be able to go to the gym to relieve stress.

“We’re now punishing the healthy,” Folwell said. He said that income insecurity needs to be considered along with health.

“I really ask that you not only focus on the sick, but that you do not punish the healthy. And you can start that in this meeting by agreeing to what you said on April 23 [to reopen gyms in Phase Two],” Folwell said.

Folwell asked Cooper to change his executive order during the meeting, not days or weeks from now.

“I’m asking you, but I’m actually begging you to do that,” Folwell said.

Cooper did not.

“A strong economy and good public health go hand in hand. We have said from the beginning what we want to do is to carefully and cautiously reignite the economy,” Cooper said. “We believe this is the best move for North Carolina,” he said.

Cooper said they want to watch the trends after restaurants and personal care businesses reopen.

“It’s a pretty big deal to open restaurants across the state,” Cooper said.

Cohen said not reopening gyms isn’t “a sweat thing, it’s an exertion and breathing issue.” She said an outbreak at a church started with a choir, because singing involves deeper breathing.

What about breweries?

Cooper didn’t tell Johnson when the guidance about reopening breweries, distilleries and wineries would come out.

“I’m happy the legal team is looking at the brewery issue,” Johnson said. He said it is not partisan or political, just something in the order that needs to be resolved.

“I completely agree COVID-19 is still out there,” he said. Johnson said he uses social distancing and wears a mask at the grocery store.

Johnson and Troxler said they are concerned about small businesses’ future.

“Five weeks is a long time, and I know many, many businesses that are closed now will not be there in five weeks when we reopen,” Troxler said.

“If we can make decisions earlier than five weeks, then I would certainly encourage that,” Troxler said.

“People are more concerned about the economy and their personal livelihood than they are about coronavirus at this point,” Causey said. He said that doesn’t mean they’re not still concerned about coronavirus.

“They appreciate what’s been done up to this point, but everyone wants to see everything reopen as soon as possible, but safely,” Causey said.

Annabel Butler, restaurant manager and sommelier at Il Palio, restocks liquor at the restaurant’s bar ahead of opening the following evening with 9 reservations under Gov. Roy Cooper’s Phase Two of reopening during the coronavirus pandemic, on Thursday, May 21, 2020, in Chapel Hill, N.C.

‘Not out of the woods,’ Cohen says

Cohen told the statewide elected leaders they want to take a “slow and measured approach” to reopening.

She told them the state has 20,000 cases, 700 deaths and nearly 300,000 tests complete.

She said they are doing better on testing and supplies.

“I would say things have greatly improved, but we’re not out of the woods,” she said.

Day-over-day case increases are notable, Cohen said, including 700 new cases over one day earlier this week.

“Because of that, we took a more modest approach to reopening,” she said.