After 888 days, today officially marks the end of North Carolina’s COVID-19 state of emergency. Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, announced in July that the state of emergency would end on Aug. 15 because the 2022 $27.9 General Budget, which he signed into law on July 11, included changes in the law that were requested by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
N.C. was one of nine remaining states, mostly led by Democratic governors, under some sort of state of emergency. In recent months, it has remained in effect mainly for eligibility for federal funding and hasn’t had much of an impact on day-to-day life, excluding wearing masks in medical facilities. However, the overall impact of Cooper’s 2020 order led to a year or more of closed schools, bankrupt businesses, and other lockdowns.
Studies like the one from Johns Hopkins, now show lockdowns had little to no public health effects while creating a huge economic and social crisis.
So, how did we get to this point? What steps are in place to prevent an overreach of power by a governor if a similar situation were to occur again?
Cooper declared a state of emergency on March 10, 2020, a week after the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the state. A few days later, he issued executive orders closing K-12 public schools for two weeks and putting restrictions on businesses.
Initially, health experts like Dr. Tony Fauci, said it would take two weeks to “flatten the curve” if there were restrictions like lockdowns in place for that amount of time. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, as COVID-19 cases rose and restrictions were continually renewed, and others were added.
Soon, places such as churches, synagogues, restaurants, bars, hair salons, gyms, playgrounds, entertainment arenas, amusement parks, and sporting events had their in-person activities either restricted or shut down entirely. Events like weddings, funerals, and graduations were cancelled or had extreme limitations. Some businesses began to let employees work remotely in order to stay open.
As soon as restrictions were set to be lifted, new executive orders by Cooper extended the declaration each time it was set to expire.
Lawmakers and other officials criticized Cooper for declaring a state of emergency without first consulting with N.C.’s 10 elected Council of State members, as was required by statutory mandates.
Republican lawmakers sent bills to the governor during the summer of 2020, some requiring the Council of State’s input to lift restrictions and prevent new ones from being enacted, but Cooper vetoed every one. Businesses were hurting, and children began to feel the effects of being isolated from their teachers and classmates.
As the first vaccines began their rollout in December 2020, Cooper walked back reopening with a new stay-at-home order, starting Friday, Dec. 11, when North Carolina effectively shut down from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.
Cooper’s order required nonessential businesses to close by 10 p.m., as well as banning private gatherings and nonessential travel. The order didn’t affect construction, manufacturing, or grocery stores.
The state of emergency, curfews, and shutdowns continued through early 2021, along with mask mandates. The state’s heavy-fisted response to the coronavirus pandemic resulted in a delayed economic recovery, reports from state and national economists showed
Also, during that month, Cooper urged elementary schools to reopen for in-person learning, with middle and high schools staying shut. The General Assembly passed S.B. 37, allowing in-person instruction for all schools, but Cooper vetoed it. Most schools, however, were able to reopen the following month after new guidance and negotiations from the N.C. Board of Education that led to an agreement to reopen schools.
By May 2021, Cooper lifted all mass gathering limits and social distancing requirements and removed the mask mandate for most indoor settings. By the end of July 2021, all statewide restrictions were lifted, and any mandates, including mask-wearing, shifted to local governments.
But the state of emergency remained. Cooper said it was necessary to keep it in place to keep receiving federal funding and to receive vaccines faster.
Cooper again vetoed lawmakers’ attempt to reign in Cooper’s power and those of his successors by passing a bill in October 2021. House Bill 264, Emergency Powers Accountability Act, would have required that the governor receive concurrence from the 10-member elected Council of State for an emergency declaration of more than seven days and legislative approval for it to extend beyond 45 days.
However, in November 2021, Cooper signed the $25.9 billion biennium budget, the first one he signed since taking office in 2017, which included revisions to the governor’s emergency authority that would go into effect after Jan. 1, 2023. This was part of the original Senate budget bill from Spring 2021 and is a direct response to Cooper’s emergency declarations over the past 20 months due to the pandemic.
The revision would require such orders to get approval from the Council of State after 30 days of being in a state of emergency.
“Cooper admitted — and has admitted for months and months on end — that the reason for his declaration isn’t an emergency, but to “draw down federal funds,” said Jon Sanders, director of the Center for Food, Power, and Life and research editor at the John Locke Foundation. “He has been deliberately keeping the state under an emergency declaration to fleece the federal government, meaning the taxpayers.”
“Cooper’s making a mockery of the plain intent of the state’s Emergency Management Act necessitated important reforms by the General Assembly last year to prevent future governors from unilaterally declaring an emergency and then “ruling” the state by executive order,” he said.
But, the damage has been done in North Carolina and across the U.S., and the world. Data from NCDHHS showed that a growing mental health crisis among teens only increased in the time since the pandemic, with a massive jump in suicide attempts, drug overdoses, and involuntary commitments evident among the state’s teenage population.
Mayor Allen Joines of Winston-Salem announced on Friday that he intends to continue the state of emergency in the city, citing continued infection rates. A COVID state of emergency in California, Washington, and West Virginia remains in effect indefinitely. This summer governors in California, New York, and Illinois have also declared a state of emergency for monkeypox.