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Cooper administration encourages 36 counties to enhance COVID-19 restrictions
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Cooper administration encourages 36 counties to enhance COVID-19 restrictions

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Gov. Roy Cooper chose Wednesday to keep in place statewide Phase 3 socioeconomic restrictions through Nov. 14.

However, two members of his administration sent a letter Tuesday to elected leaders in 36 counties — though not Forsyth — recommending and encouraging them to consider implementing enhanced restrictions of their own.

The request from state Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen and state Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks emphasizes reinforcing social-distancing request within their communities, including for officials to "consider local actions to improve compliance with executive orders."

The counties included Alamance, Davidson, Guilford, Randolph, Rockingham and Watauga from the Triad and Northwest North Carolina.

Suggested enforcement steps included:

* Imposing fines for businesses that do not enforce the mask requirements;

* Establishing lower mass gathering limits than 25 indoors and 50 outdoors permitted in most settings statewide;

* Curtailing the sale of alcohol earlier than the statewide curfew of 11 p.m.;

* Closing high-risk venues, such as bars and night spots; and

* Limiting restaurant service.

The state Department of Health and Human Services reported Wednesday that the state has reached 250,932 COVID-19 cases, 4,032 virus-related deaths and third-highest hospitalization level (at 1,219) of the pandemic.

“We are doing everything we can to slow the spread of this virus," Cohen said. "This simple fact is we can’t do it on our own. Ignoring the virus doesn’t make it go away — just the opposite.

"The incredible work of our local partners has allowed North Carolina to avoid the first and second waves of rapid spikes in COVID-19 positives that devastated so many other states."

Concerns

The letter was sent to counties that met the following metrics: having had 300 or more new cases in the past 14 days; been identified by the White House Task Force as a county of concern; rate of cases is greater than 50 cases per 10,000 individuals; or the county is one of the three most populous in the state.

The letter outlined "local actions to consider that have less severe penalties for violating COVID-19 executive orders than what is available through the state-level emergency powers."

"The penalty for violating the state-level executive order is limited to criminal citations, which could result in imprisonment. City and county governments can create ordinances that carry more flexible consequences."

Examples of local actions include:

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* Adopting an ordinance that imposes a civil penalty for violating its provisions.

* Issuing a local emergency proclamation setting higher standards to address the pandemic.

* Supporting the local health director to issue and enforce an imminent hazard abatement order against entities whose actions, including failure to comply with the governor’s executive order, present an imminent hazard to the community.

When asked why the current COVID-19 trends aren't compelling a statewide tightening of social-distancing restrictions, Cooper said he was taking the worsening metrics into consideration by not moving ahead with more reopening steps.

"We're working on increased enforcement of safety precautions that already are in place," Cooper said. "Some people are not complying with (the guidelines). We believe enforcement will help us to slow the trends.

"We're working hard to bring community leaders together and reemphasizing local government authority in areas where this virus may be more of an issue.

"It is no different in terms of trying to stem the spread of the virus from how we began back in March, April and June, Cooper said.

Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who is running against Cooper for governor, has called for immediate reopening of the state's economy, and the wearing of face masks as a personal preference rather than a statewide mandate.

Forest responded to Cohen and Hooks' letter by accusing Cooper of "trying to shut down North Carolina without telling the public."

"To put it bluntly: Gov. Cooper is attempting to use local governments to punish business and individuals doing what they can to survive. Passing the buck to local businesses and municipalities is the antithesis of leadership."

No local plans

Counties and municipalities have had the ability to enforce certain tightened social distancing restrictions since the pandemic began in mid-March, although most have defer to the Phase restrictions set by Cooper.

"This letter does not add anything legally to what localities can already do," said John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University and a national expert on state legislatures. 

"But, this letter seems intended as a way to signal that although the state is not tightening its policies that localities remain free to do so, as a way of targeting geographical areas of concern without setting an even more stringent state policy."

Allen Joines, mayor of Winston-Salem, said city officials "are not actively looking at adding the past restrictions."

"Our earlier emergency orders did include provisions more restrictive than the state, and they also included a civil fine. However, those orders have now lapsed in favor of the governor’s declarations of emergency.

"We may, however, look at putting the civil fine back in place to help with enforcement of the governor’s order."

Forsyth County manager Dudley Watts said that the county has "worked closely with the state and the local medical director to establish an effective public information campaign."

"There has been no formal discussion about further local action.

"The general sense I get is that voluntary compliance has been pretty effective, and I have received very few complaints."

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