Cooper: Office-return advice coming as NC virus mandates end

Doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine are seen being prepared on Wednesday, May 12, 2021, in Decatur, Ga. (AP Photo/Ron Harris)

RALEIGH — North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said Monday that his administration is acting prudently before recommending when and how state employees should return to their offices, after doing away with most COVID-19 face covering and capacity mandates last week.

Speaking to reporters at a bill-signing ceremony, Cooper again defended his decision on Friday to repeal a statewide mask mandate, even for the unvaccinated. He said guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made it plain “that vaccinated people had very little chance of contracting COVID and they had very little chance of transmitting it to someone else.” Many other states have since dropped their mask mandates as well.

The CDC’s research made it very difficult to justify keeping mandatory mask orders in place for everyone, but also emphasized the importance of getting vaccinated, the governor said. More than 51% of all adults have had at least one COVID-19 vaccination, according to state health data.

“It’s important to know we are turning a corner. This research was significant,” he said outside the Executive Mansion, but “we have a lot of work to do and where we all ought to concentrate our effort is vaccinations.”

The state Department of Health and Human Services still recommends that people who aren’t vaccinated wear a mask indoors as well as outside where there are crowds. Mask-wearing remains required for all within schools and on public transportation, and many retailers are still requiring patrons to wear them.

“It’s important to know we are turning a corner. This research was significant.”

Gov. Roy Cooper

Cooper said DHHS was speaking with CDC officials on Monday before making decisions about how and when employees at state agencies working from home return to their office buildings. The department also could give advice to to other public and private employers. State agencies under Cooper’s oversight will continue their current COVID-19 policies until then, he said.

On another topic, the Democratic governor suggested that the state Senate move forward with passing a two-year budget proposal without first agreeing with the House on how much money should be spent next year. Budget activities have idled  for weeks among Republican lawmakers because the two chambers remain far apart on a spending cap figure. They ultimately will send a finalized budget to Cooper’s desk, with a goal of getting it enacted by July 1.

Cooper said it makes little sense to settle on a dollar amount now when an updated revenue forecast will become available in June that incorporates May income tax collections. He anticipates the forecast will show even more funds for the state’s already flush coffers.

“So I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary for the Senate and the House to reach any kind of limit,” Cooper said.

Any spending cap reached soon by Republicans is likely to be lower than the governor’s bottom line in his budget proposal from late March. Republican leaders and Cooper have expressed guarded optimism that the governor will sign a budget this year after a 2019 budget veto and negotiating stalemate never got fully resolved.