NCDHHS secretary having ‘ongoing conversations’ with mayors about stricter COVID ordinances

N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services secretary Mandy Cohen briefs media at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh. Photo via N.C. Dept. of Public Safety

RALEIGH — At a COVID-19 briefing on Nov. 12, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services secretary Mandy Cohen confirmed she was having “ongoing conversations” with mayors in the state about implementing stricter COVID-19 ordinances than the state’s current emergency orders.

When asked if her office was pushing stricter ordinances in calls with mayors, Cohen confirmed, “We have had ongoing conversations throughout our time fighting COVID with our county and municipal leaders.” She confirmed that she and her office had “talked to mayors about it.”

“We also said, look, there are local authorities they have what we don’t have at the state level that they could consider employing here. Some of them include things like giving themselves authority to impose civil penalties as opposed to criminal penalties for violations of the executive order,” said Cohen.

Cohen went on to say that the current state executive order “only allows for criminal penalties, but local ordinances could create civil penalties,” comparing it to getting a parking ticket.

“It is a parking ticket version of a penalty,” Cohen said. She later added that certain cities and towns had been sharing “best practices” for dealing with businesses and COVID order compliance.

The day before Cohen’s remarks, Gov. Roy Cooper issued a new executive order keeping the state in Phase 3, but reducing the indoor gathering limit from 25 to 10 people. Cooper stated during the briefing that the intent was to target Thanksgiving holiday gatherings.

“What the governor has somehow forgotten is a thing called ‘My home is my castle,’ and he does not rule over my home or the homes of any other North Carolina families,” said Ashley Smith, co-founder of the ReOpenNC movement.

“It seems as though every month or so for the last eight months, the governor says, ‘We’re almost there,’ urging compliance and ‘a light at the end of the tunnel is near.’ Truth be told, Cooper and NCDHHS Director Dr. Cohen have still not emphasized the co-morbidity rates of infection and death that would prove that only a small fraction of the general public is actually at risk,” Smith said.

In October, NCDHHS pushed county officials to enact stronger ordinances.

On Oct. 21, a letter was sent to 36 counties by Cohen and N.C. Department of Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks. The letter urged county officials to create ordinances which “include restrictions imposing a higher State of Emergency standard than those included in the governor’s most recent Executive Order.” The Oct. 21 letter also asks counties to “adopt an ordinance that imposes a civil penalty or fine.” 

Accompanying Cohen and Hooks’ letter were two suggested sample ordinance drafts. Both used language similar to restrictions in Phase 2, with indoor gatherings of 25 limited back to 10 people. Additionally, the sample ordinances invoke an alcohol curfew of 9 p.m., earlier than the current statewide curfew of 11 p.m.

Fines suggested for violators would follow a one-year rolling basis, beginning with the first violation. Cohen and Hooks suggested tiered penalties starting at $200 for the first violation and rising to $1,000 for the fourth violation. Any failure to pay a penalty would results in an additional $50 charge.

The following 36 counties received the NCDHHS letter: Alamance, Avery, Burke, Caldwell, Caswell, Catawba, Chowan, Cleveland, Craven, Cumberland, Davidson, Duplin, Edgecombe, Gaston, Graham, Greene, Guilford, Hoke, Hyde, Johnston, Lincoln, Mecklenburg, Moore, Nash, New Hanover, Onslow, Pitt, Randolph, Robeson, Rockingham, Rowan, Scotland, Union, Wake, Watauga and Wayne.

According to NCDHHS, these counties had to meet certain criteria in order to be sent the ordinance letter. A county had to have 300 or more new cases in the last 14 days and was identified by the White House Task Force as a county of concern, the county’s case rate is greater than 50 cases per 10,000 people, or the county is one of the top three most populous.

The day after the Oct. 21 briefing, North State Journal examined the case data for all counties and found some counties were left off the list while others that received the letter likely shouldn’t have.

Analysis showed 10 counties who did not receive sent letters actually did meet at least one of NCDHHS’ criteria. Buncombe, Brunswick, Cabarrus, Durham, Forsyth, Harnett, Iredell and Wilson all met the 14-day case criteria. Richmond and Clay met criteria No. 2, being a county with a case rate greater than 50 cases per 10,000 people.

None of the following counties which received a letter appeared to meet the criteria: Burke, Caswell, Chowan, Duplin, Graham, Greene, Hoke, Scotland and Watauga.

These 10 counties may have been identified by the White House Coronavirus Task Force; however, that data has not been made available by the task force or NCDHHS.