The N.C. General Assembly on Thursday passed a House bill that would allow private bars and clubs to reopen with patron capacity similar to that of restaurants.
The Senate voted first on House Bill 536, approving it in a 42-5 bipartisan vote with 15 Democrats on board.
However, because the House later voted 65-53 along contentious party lines, it raises the likelihood the bill could be subject to the first veto of the 2020 session by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Two House Democrats voted for the bill.
HB536 would expand the allowed outdoor dining and adult-beverage capacity for restaurants, private bars, private clubs, brewpubs, wineries and distilleries to 50% of indoor capacity or 100 customers, whichever is less.
Of those businesses, only private bars and clubs are currently not allowed to operate at 50% indoor capacity.
The bill allows for the use of covered patios, public sidewalks and parking lots. Public streets, if permitted, could be closed for private business. In each instance, seating must be on the same parcel, contiguous to or in “close proximity” to the establishment.
The easing of restrictions would go into effect immediately, if the bill becomes law, and expire Oct. 31, or when Cooper rescinds his executive order limiting mass gatherings.
“This legislation provides equity for North Carolina businesses that are hardest-hit by the economic shutdown and will deliver revenue for desperate small businesses by allowing safe outdoor-seating options,” state Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said in a statement.
Cooper expressed his disagreement with the inclusions of private bars and clubs in the bill during a news conference that preceded the House vote.
“This legislation would mean that even if there is a surge in COVID-19 that would overwhelm our hospitals, that bars still stay open,” he said. “It’s very difficult to go back and undo and unwind legislation.
And, Cooper said, it prevents local governments from going in and making decisions about bars being open in hot spots for the virus.
“I believe,” he said, “there will be a time when we can open bars. But, that time is not now.
“We’ve got to keep the health and safety of North Carolinians as our No. 1 priority.”
In a written statement, House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, urged Cooper “to sign this legislation immediately to offer a lifeline to thousands of businesses across North Carolina through a safe, commonsense policy that is supported by science and data.”
Would gyms be next?
The intent of HB536 is to allow private bars and clubs to open temporarily before the planned June 26 start of the third phase of Cooper’s three-part reopening initiative.
The bill was subject to the gut-and-replace strategy by the Senate in order to insert restaurant and other hospitality-specific language.
Some House Democrats criticized the bill as serving as an end around to a governor’s executive order.
House minority leader Darren Jackson, D-Wake, said that if HB536 were to become law, “there would be another bill here next week allowing gyms to reopen” ahead of the executive order.
Several House Republicans debating the bill after Jackson acknowledged that would be their next priority. Some said they would favor introducing legislation that would curtail most, if not all, of a governor’s ability to temporarily closes businesses in a public-health emergency.
“My bill treats restaurants and bars the same, and it follows the lead of other jurisdictions by allowing safe outdoor-seating options,” said ]its sponsor, state Rep. Rick Gunn, R-Alamance.
“This industry has taken the brunt of the shutdown, and this policy just makes sense,” Gunn said.
Cooper’s phase two reopening, which began a week ago today, also keeps closed until at least June 26 public playgrounds, gyms and fitness centers, movie theaters, bowling alleys, bingo parlors and museums.
Cooper said on May 20 that those businesses will remain closed because “of the potential spread of COVID-19 can be significant there.” Many of those businesses have been reopened in neighboring states in recent weeks.
There have been separate lawsuits filed seeking temporary injunctions of the closures of bars and clubs, fitness centers and bowling alleys.
State Sen. Paul Lowe, D-Forsyth, said he preferred that restaurants would have been allowed to reopen at closer to 100% capacity in phase two “because restaurants are made to function at 100%.” Lowe voted for the bill.
He said many restaurants in Forsyth County “are not going to have a place to open outside anyway.”
The lack of what was termed “a safety switch” — a way to retighten restrictions on the businesses affected in HB536 in case of second wave or spike in COVID-19 cases — was cited by some senators.
“To assume that everyone is going to behave, or there’s not going to be a second wave, or we can pretend there’s not a deadly virus going through our community — seems to be irresponsible without a safety switch,” said state Sen. Natasha Marcus, D-Mecklenburg.
Gunn said he would be willing to make appropriate changes to HB536 if such a spike or second wave occurred. He said county health departments would be able to control or shut down businesses violating restrictions.
Gunn expressed confidence that patrons “will respect social distancing, will not bellying up to a bar; that will not be allowed.”
Marcus asked if HB536 has provisions to not allow patrons to dance, sing karaoke, “things that I often picture happening particularly in college-setting bars.”
Gunn replied “that is correct. ... It’s not going to turn into a big festival.”
State Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, questioned the practicality and reality of patrons acting with self-discipline, saying they are likely to choose to mingle indiscriminately with strangers.
Robinson said she was disturbed by the defiance Saturday of Cooper’s executive order on mass gatherings at Ace Speedway by track operators with the blessing of Alamance County elected and law-enforcement officials.
There were more than 4,000 fans at Ace’s races, compared with the limit of 25 at an outdoor event under the executive order.
Robinson said that “what I saw last weekend were people in lines close together. They were not observing safety precautions. It was a free-for-all.
“You can say what you want, but if you open up the bars, people are going to have a good time because they’ve been waiting on this (reopening).”
Gunn said, “I’m going to ask our businesses to show, prove it to us, that you appreciate what we’re doing by giving you this chance and operate in an effective, efficient and safe manner using the best practices that we’ve all heard about.”
“I’m going to ask our patrons to be responsible,” he said.
State Sen. Tom McInnis, R-Moore, said that “at some point, we have to give the people of North Carolina the credit that they have personal responsibility and common sense, and this bill brings that forward.”
The House requires at least 72 votes to override a veto by the governor.
House Republicans were not able to override a Cooper veto during the 2019 session when the House was at full attendance.
However, they did override Cooper’s vetoes of the state budget and Medicaid transformation on Sept. 11.
House Republican leaders waited 76 days to conduct their veto-override votes. Each day’s delay during the 2019 session required most House Democrats to be ready to vote on a moment’s notice.
Most Democratic members were not on the floor the morning of Sept. 11 because they said they had been told by Republican House leadership that no votes would be taken during the first session that day.
That action created a high lack of trust in House Democrats for GOP House leadership, some of which was re-stirred during Thursday’s debate on HB536.
“Regardless of their individual assessments of the bill’s merits, House Democrats chose to side with the governor,” said Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with the John Locke Foundation, a conservative-leaning research group.
“If he vetoes the measure, expect some of the ‘yes’ votes within the Senate Democratic caucus to trickle away as well.”