Featured image for article

How Politics Turned in a Week and Cooper Suddenly Lifted Most Covid Orders

Last week, Gov. Roy Cooper and his administration had made it sound as if his mask order would last for several more months. Then on Friday, May 14, Cooper eliminated it for nearly all places. It was a whirlwind week.

Monday, May 10

With no fanfare or media curiosity, Cohen restated the administration’s previously stated benchmark for removing the mask order. None of the news reports I saw seemed to recognize that the administration had issued a key change in policy, even though the effect would have been to keep people forced to wear face masks for months longer.

Yes, months.

WTVD reported about it in its Tuesday morning “NC coronavirus update” under the headline “NC Health Secretary announces benchmark for ending indoor mask requirement” (emphasis added):

North Carolina’s Health Secretary said the state is still working toward a time when the indoor mask mandate can be lifted.

Dr. Mandy Cohen said the benchmark for eliminating that requirement is having at least 66 percent of adults in the state fully vaccinated. Right now, about half of adults are at least partially vaccinated.

Before we get rid of that indoor mask mandate, which I know everyone wants to get rid of, we’ve got to work a little bit harder over the next couple of weeks and months to get more folks vaccinated and then hope to, again, put this pandemic in our rearview mirror,” Cohen said.

Way back in August 17, 2020, Cohen had let slip that the administration didn’t plan for a return to “relative normalcy” till “mid-2021.” But anyone in the possession of even a short-term memory would recall that the administration’s last benchmark for removing the mask mandate — announced April 21 — was two-thirds of adults partially vaccinated. As pointed out here, Cooper knew then that he was setting a standard that the state wouldn’t be able to reach for months — especially since he refused to account for natural immunity.

Cohen’s stealth edit would have made the ongoing mask tyranny against people and businesses last even longer. Possibly it would be enough to push into the start of cold and flu season, at which point the governor would be tempted once again to cry “Dimmer switch!” and let slip the dogs of lockdown.

Also on May 10, Cooper issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency over the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack and subsequent shutdown. Cooper’s press release added that “The Order received concurrence from the Council of State.” But why say that; shouldn’t it be obvious? Wouldn’t it be as redundant as writing “The newly passed legislation had received majority votes in both chambers of the General Assembly”? No, because unfortunately it is actually newsworthy that this particular governor opted to follow state law in issuing an executive order, given that he has spent the past 14 months issuing orders outside of it.

Thursday, May 13

State Auditor Beth Wood released a performance audit showing that the Cooper administration had done an exceedingly poor job monitoring and controlling the distribution of federal Coronavirus Relief Funds. The audit found that $3.1 million of the $3.6 million had been distributed “with limited monitoring” and “without ensuring all recipients had a method to measure results.” The audit results were also noteworthy for coming as little surprise to media and others who follow North Carolina politics under the Cooper administration.

By far the biggest news of the day was the sudden change in guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that “Fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing.” As reported by NPR, this change was not only “a surprise,” but that some leaders found it “dismaying.”

Pres. Joe Biden, beset with multiple crises (a terrible jobs report, the ongoing border crisis, a sudden return to fighting in the Middle East, the rapid increase in inflation, a faltering economy, shortages and supply-chain problems, and suddenly a fuel crisis), announced the new guidance at a White House Rose Garden ceremony. “Today is a great day for America and our long battle with coronavirus,” Biden said.

Meanwhile, at a photo-op tour of a vaccine clinic, Gov. Roy Cooper addressed the CDC guidance change by saying he still has an inside mask mandate, but that the administration would look at all the CDC recommendations. He was then asked by a member of the press that, since it was unlikely the state would reach 66% vaccinated by June 1, did he still plan “to lift the mask mandate and the capacity requirements” by then?

Cooper responded first by correcting the questioner’s premise, then giving his answer (emphasis added):

So what we have said — let’s make sure we’ve got what we’ve said right — we’ve said that we planned by the end of the month to lift capacity restrictions and gathering restrictions. We are, however, planning to continue to leave the indoor mask mandate in effect past June the 1st.

We have not said that we plan to get two-thirds vaccinated by June 1st because I think we’ve seen all along that we’re not going to make that. But when we do get to two-thirds, the plan is at that point to lift the mask mandate. And you know, we’re thinking that that maybe sometime in July, depending on how fast we can get the pace picked up.

Cooper certainly seemed adamant that he had no plans to lift the mask mandate within the next 24 hours, not when he just made it sound as if being able to lift it by July would be an accomplishment.

Despite the Cooper administration, North Carolina media, and others acting as if lifting the mask mandate would represent some dangerous divergence, in reality the state was an outcropping of extreme personal restrictions in a sea of freedom. Three of North Carolina’s four border states allowed its huddled masses to breathe free.

Friday, May 14

Cooper surprised everyone by immediately lifting nearly all of his restrictions against people and businesses, including most — but not all — of the mask mandate. One can only wonder about the content of the incoming top-priority phone calls to the governor’s office Thursday evening.

Cooper took to the podium and affected a smile to proclaim:

Today I have great news to share with the people of North Carolina. Effective immediately, we are lifting all mandatory capacity and gathering limits and social distancing requirements and most mandatory mask requirements. That means in most settings, indoors or outdoors, the state of North Carolina will no longer require you to wear a mask or to be socially distant. This is a big step forward and living our lives the way they were before the pandemic. That’s good.

Nevertheless, Cooper stuck to his unscientific mask order for schools, child care facilities, children’s day or overnight camps, health care settings such as long-term care facilities, state-regulated public or private transportation, airports, bus stations, train stations, prisons, and homeless shelters.

He also stubbornly kept North Carolina under a state of emergency, although there is no serious rationale for continuing it. He listed four reasons in five bullet points (weirdly, points 1 and 3 are verbatim), which amount to money (points 1–3) and power (points 4-5):

Are there reasons why a State of Emergency should remain in place?

Yes.

  1. The State of Emergency maintains state’s ability to receive federal funding to meet challenges presented by COVID-19.

  2. The State of Emergency provides DHHS and health care facilities with increased regulatory flexibility allowing health care providers to expand their capacity to meet the state’s COVID-19 needs. Today, although most adult North Carolinians have received at least one vaccination dose, more than nine hundred people in North Carolina are still hospitalized with COVID-19, and the state is still reporting more than a thousand new cases each day. Meanwhile, our state is vaccinating tens of thousands of people every day — an effort that has required flexibility to allow vaccinations in many settings where they normally could not take place. The State of Emergency is required to keep our hospitals able to respond to this surge in patients and enable our state’s surge in vaccination capacity.

  3. The State of Emergency maintains the state’s ability to receive federal funding to meet challenges presented by COVID-19.

  4. The State of Emergency creates a pathway for continued face covering requirements in certain high risk settings like long term care centers and detention facilities.

  5. The State of Emergency allows the state to be ready in case there is a spike in the disease among the non-vaccinated population.

Point 5 is especially bonkers. We’re under a State of Emergency on the off chance that we may have an emergency at some point in the future?

In the future

Living our lives the way they were before the pandemic,” as Cooper put it, would be normal normal, not the “new normal” Cooper had been seeking for over a year.

To secure normal normal, reforming the state Emergency Management Act remains an absolutely vital reform. The General Assembly simply must protect the North Carolina State Constitution from perpetual executive rule, to make sure Cooper’s abuse of emergency orders doesn’t become “normal” for future governors.

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...