North Carolina legislators are wading into Gov. Roy Cooper's business reopening decisions, as the state Senate voted Thursday to let bars serve customers again despite his recent executive order keeping them closed due to COVID-19.
With support from members of both parties, the legislation approved overwhelmingly that would essentially overturn Cooper's decision on bars, which the Democratic governor said was based on data and science. Republicans and some business owners have questioned his orders, calling them uneven and devastating to the state economy.
Currently, bars must be shuttered through late June, but Cooper allowed restaurants last week to reopen partially their indoor dining areas. But senators said all of these businesses needed a stronger economic lifeline to avoid permanent closure and rehire workers they had to lay off when restrictions began in mid-March. More than 956,000 individuals have filed unemployment claims since then and the state's unemployment rate soared above 12% last month.
“We have a chance to provide an economic ventilator that may give these businesses a breath of hope to be successful for years to come,” said Sen. Rick Gunn, an Alamance County Republican shepherding the measure that passed 42-5.
Gov. Cooper argued reopening bars is risky.
"I believe that there will be a time when we can open bars, but that time is not now," said Cooper. "We've got to keep the health and safety of North Carolinians as our number one priority."
The bill would allow bars to reopen outdoors only, whether on a patio or under a tent of awning. They would be limited to serving 100 people or 50% of the bar's outdoor capacity, whichever is less. The bill also would allow the already partially reopened restaurants and breweries to provide a similar outdoor option. Social distancing rules would have to be followed for outdoor seating and areas for alcohol consumption also would be cordoned off.
The measure still would have to be approved by the House before it goes to Cooper, who has veto power. The margin of the Senate vote suggests that Cooper would have work to do to prevent an override.
Sen. Sam Searcy, a Wake County Democrat, said the bill gives restaurants more options to expand the number of patrons while ensuring they follow health guidelines.
“I just don't see why we would vote against this bill,” Searcy said. The few Democrats voting no said they were worried the measure lacked a provision that would scale back capacity should there be a virus surge and that it took power away from the governor to make health-based decisions.
“I cannot support a bill that is going to put our communities further at risk,” said Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Guilford County Democrat voting no. Gunn said local health officials already had authority over eateries and bars that failed to follow health guidelines.
The legislative action came as state health officials said more than 25,400 people have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Thursday morning, with more than 825 related deaths. Current hospitalizations reached a new high with 708 patients. Positive cases have increased while the number of completed tests continue to rise, now reaching beyond 375,000.
Gyms and adult entertainment businesses have sued Cooper, seeking to ease portions of his executive orders keeping them closed. A federal judge this month blocked enforcement of a previous ordering prevented indoor church services of more than 10 people.