by Donna Martinez
Former Senior Writer and Editor, John Locke Foundation
This news release from N.C. Senate Republicans arrived this morning in my in box.
Raleigh, N.C. – Yesterday members of the Joint Legislative Commission of Governmental Operations’ Subcommittee on Use and Distribution of Federal COVID Funding questioned members of Gov. Cooper’s COVID response team, including outgoing Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen, about the state’s COVID-19 response and recovery.
Cohen, Department of Commerce Secretary Machelle Sanders, and Lee Lilley, who serves as the Governor’s director of North Carolina Pandemic Recovery, took questions during the three-hour meeting.
During the hearing, legislators focused on the continued state of emergency, including how the school and business shutdowns impacted North Carolinians and the state’s strategy for ending the state of emergency.
None of the officials could say when the declared state of emergency would end or provide details about a comprehensive plan for how to navigate a path forward from the pandemic.
“Yesterday’s hearing was informative and troubling,” Sen. Chuck Edwards, co-chair of the subcommittee said. “We heard a lot of good information about our state’s continued recovery from the pandemic, but I’m concerned about how we move forward from the pandemic. There is no clear, comprehensive ‘off-ramp’ and the Cooper Administration refuses to acknowledge that we are no longer in a state of emergency.”
Secretary Cohen confirmed that school closures are not ruled out for any future COVID surges.
When asked whether the StrongSchoolsNC: Public Health Toolkit (K-12) was a recommendation, mandate, suggestion, or law, Secretary Cohen described it as a “guideline” and could not commit to it ever ceasing to exist.
When questioned by committee members about school quarantining procedures, Secretary Cohen clarified that even if a student has been exposed to a COVID case – meaning they’ve been within 6 feet of someone who tested positive for more than 15 minutes – then they would need to quarantine unless the student exposed was masking, vaccinated, or if they’ve had COVID-19 in the last 90 days. She said those factors are considered a “layer of protection” from the virus.
When pressed about whether schools should separate students based on vaccination status, Secretary Cohen said she does not recommend separation.
Lawmakers also homed in on the apparent double standards of some of the restrictions, including the decision to shut down private bars while allowing breweries and restaurants with bars to remain open. Secretary Cohen said the state had to look at both the setting and activities that take place at a business and how that impacts the spread of the virus. Mr. Lilley noted that some of the early decisions on what businesses were deemed “essential” and “non-essential” were based on definitions from the federal government.
Secretary Sanders, during her testimony, said she was happy that business can fully reopen now. Lawmakers pushed her on the assertion because businesses across the state are unable to hire enough workers to work at full capacity. She disputed that the labor shortage was a result of increased unemployment benefits, asserting that the labor shortage was instead caused before the pandemic and was a result of low birth rates and low immigration rates. Secretary Sanders said the state is focusing on workforce solutions and development to address the needs of businesses. She did not have any statistics on so-called “non-essential” businesses that closed temporarily due to COVID-19 and then had to close permanently.