Cooper’s game of keeping NC not even in full ‘Phase 2’ yet

Since closing restaurants and bars by executive order on March 17 despite the opposition of the Council of State and ever since deliberately not seeking their concurrence, Gov. Cooper has descended into disreputable political theater regarding his orders. A sort of game has emerged whereby Cooper’s allies in media promote an upcoming gubernatorial announcement in promising terms before the governor dashes everyone’s hopes.

I first pointed this out on May 5 after a week had gone by from when Cooper had originally said he would reopen the state (on April 29, in keeping with “30 days to slow the spread” and “flatten the curve”), but didn’t. Media and many citizens apparently adjusted their thinking as if this change never happened. It was, as shown here, demonstrably Orwellian.

April 23

April 23 was when Cooper was going to give the hoped-for reopening announcement. It had been a tough month, but citizens and business owners had taken it as their civic duty to help flatten the curve, and folks had adopted the mantra “We’re all in this together” as a nod to our shared sacrifice. As the day approached, the governor had even said that the state had flattened the curve, which was Cooper’s stated rationale for all his executive orders.

Here’s a sample of what was reported leading up to that day’s announcement:

  • WRAL: Governor Cooper expected to announce reopening plan Thursday afternoon
  • The News & Observer: Gov. Cooper expected to announce state reopening plans. How to watch his press conference.
  • ABC11 WTVD: “9:15 a.m. … Gov. Roy Cooper is slated to speak at 3 p.m. Sources tell ABC11 that Cooper will talk about his plan for reopening the state. State Health Director Dr. Betsey Tilson, one of Cooper’s advisors, said nobody wants to reopen the state more than Cooper.”

What actually happened?

There wasn’t a reopening for April 29 as promised. What “reopening” there would be was put off for well over another week, and it would be minimal. People were still under “Stay at Home” orders, “modified” so that they could leave their homes briefly to do business with what businesses were allowed to be open at the time. Parks were open with limits.

May 20

May 20 was when the move to Phase 2 was expected to be announced. This meant, among other things, finally allowing several kinds of businesses to reopen partially after having been cruelly shut down for two months (we cannot forget that most small businesses have only enough cash on hand to survive being shut down for about 17–27 days). Here’s what was reported leading up to the announcement:

  • Charlotte Business Journal: As phase 2 of North Carolina’s reopening approaches, poll shows residents interacting more
  • ABC11 WTVD: “Wednesday Morning Update: For the first time in months, North Carolinians may be able to eat at a restaurant or make a hair appointment this weekend. It’s possible that the state will move into Phase 2 of the reopening process on Friday at 5 p.m. Roy Cooper is expected to announce details on starting Phase 2 Wednesday at 5 p.m. … Under Phase 2, restaurants, bars, houses of worship and entertainment venues can open with reduced capacities and strict safety protocols.”
  • WRAL: “The end of Phase 2 means people may be able to get a haircut or go to the gym again. … People have not been able to go to the gym and salons have had signs up saying they are closed until further notice. Today we expect the governor to announce plans that will allow these places to reopen.”

What actually happened?

Cooper announced a “modest” Phase 2 “reopening.” His new order allowed people be outside of their homes without suspicion and allowed retail establishments to be open at half-capacity, including barber shops, salons, and restaurants, as well as bars attached to restaurants, grocery stores, breweries, wineries, or distilleries. Despite promises to the contrary, however, Cooper’s new edict was to keep the other bars, gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, theaters, music venues, playgrounds, etc. closed — for another five weeks.

June 24

June 24 had become the date when the move to Phase 3 was expected to be announced. Now three months shut, bars (the ones not attached to kitchens or grocery stores), gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, theaters, music venues, and other businesses locked out by Cooper’s arbitrary and capricious orders were hoping, finally, to return to work and try to scrape out a living despite having to take on untold amounts of debt with a quarter-year’s worth of earning a living zeroed out. Not to mention that it’s still a hardship on so many other businesses across the state being forced to cut their potential customer bases in half.

Here’s what was reported leading up to the announcement:

  • Charlotte Observer: How Phase 3 reopening impacts Charlotte museums, bars
  • WRAL: As lawmakers push for more openings, Cooper to address possible end of Phase 2
  • N&O: Phase 3 reopening: Watch Gov. Cooper briefing. “Gov. Roy Cooper plans to give an update Wednesday, as the state waits to learn if it will move into Phase Three of its reopening plan or if Phase Two will be extended. … Phase Three could potentially include the reopening of bars and gyms, and larger capacities allowed inside restaurants and other businesses.”

What actually happened?

Nothing was reopened, nor were any half-opened retailers and restaurants allowed to serve more people. Instead, Cooper forced a face mask mandate — imposing a statewide dress code based on emergent studies with questionable application to the situation in North Carolina. Cooper extended this order for three more weeks. Media and many citizens apparently believed him again, despite his clear pattern.

Would they have behaved differently if Cooper had announced his “modest, not-quite Phase 2” would last several more months instead of only a few short weeks, only a few weeks more, only a few weeks more, … ?

July 14

What made this day interesting was that it was also the date Cooper finally chose for the long-delayed schools announcement. Back on June 8 Cooper directed public schools to prepare for three different plans for reopening in the fall, saying that he would “announce by July 1” which plans would be implemented. But at 8:30 p.m. on June 30, Cooper announced that he would put off that decision for some unspecified later date.

July 14 was the day he made that announcement. The school “reopening” plans amounted to two plans: a “partial reopening” that was almost completely “unworkable,” and a remote-only (i.e., nonreopening) plan that most school districts would expect to be pressured to adopt.

But to media — though not to people out of work and the state’s struggling business owners — it was almost an afterthought that Cooper pushed back the Phase 3 decision for another three weeks.

July 28

Whether out of boredom, to test media and supporters’ so far undiminished commitment to reciting his incantation of “science and data” in making clearly arbitrary and capricious announcements, or for some other reason, Cooper ordered a halt to the sale of alcoholic beverages after 11 p.m. “at restaurants, breweries, wineries, and distilleries” but not at “grocery stores, convenience stores or other entities permitted to sell alcohol for off-premises consumption.”

August 5

Here was the next date Cooper was to announce moving to Phase 3. There’s no sense in rehashing the worsening plight of local businesses, other than to point out that it has by this time extended well over a third of an entire year for those who are somehow still hanging on.

A brief aside about “moving to Phase 3”
For that matter, there’s no reason to treat the “phases” for reopening as if they are written in stone. The phases are Cooper’s formulation only; there’s nothing that forces moving into Phase 3 before lifting all executive orders and allowing people to rebuild the economy in all the various unseen and unimaginable ways that they would do it — ways that no one, not the wisest economist, certainly not some witless central planner, could ever direct, dictate, anticipate, or comprehend.

The point is, at any time Cooper could lift his executive orders. He could do so today.

On August 5, here’s what was reported leading up to Cooper’s announcement:

What actually happened?

Nothing was reopened, nor were any half-opened retailers and restaurants allowed to serve more people. No restrictions were lifted at all — despite Cooper’s office saying that “Stabilizing trends are good.” Despite those hopeful noises, Cooper’s latest “extension” was to last not for two weeks, not for three weeks, but for five more weeks.

If you believe that.

By then bars, gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, theaters, music venues, and the other closed businesses will have been closed by Cooper for half a year.

It also means that, back when Cooper originally changed actually reopening to “reopening,” that he has kept North Carolina from entering the full “Phase 2” of reopening that he announced on April 23.

Jon Sanders / Research Editor and Senior Fellow, Regulatory Studies

Jon Sanders studies regulatory policy, a veritable kudzu of invasive government and unintended consequences. As director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation, Jo...