North Carolina General Assembly — Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update

May 29, 2020

Pardon Our Dust

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This week was the first week North Carolina operated under Governor Roy Cooper’s Safer At Home order, or Phase 2 of reopening. The Safer at Home order went into effect last Friday at 5:00PM and will last through Friday, June 26, at the earliest. During Phase 2, restaurants are able to open for dine-in at 50% capacity with cleaning and social distancing requirements. Pools and personal care businesses like salons, barber shops, and tattoo parlors are also allowed to open at 50% capacity. Childcare facilities have been given the green light to fully reopen to serve all children while gathering capacity has been increased to 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors. Even as more and more businesses being to reopen, facilities like gyms, bars, and movie theaters remain closed. 

As of Thursday morning, in the state of North Carolina, there were 25,412 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 375,192 completed tests, 827 deaths, 708 current hospitalizations, and 99 of the state’s 100 counties had seen confirmed coronavirus cases. As we all continue to feel the effects of the global pandemic and adjust to a new normal, we want to highlight a few ways our clients across North Carolina have worked to support residents and make this time a little easier for those throughout the state. Read more about what our clients are doing to help by clicking here.

For more information on COVID-19 in North Carolina, click here to visit the Department of Health and Human Services website, and be sure to stay up to date on the latest federal guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by clicking here.

Restaurant and Bar Reopening

While more restaurants were able to open this week through Governor Cooper’s Phase 2 reopening plan, some are pushing for the ability to reopen bars and increase restaurant capacity when outdoor seating is available. This week, the General Assembly took a major step towards making that happen. HB 536: Temp Outdoor Restaurants for Outdoor Seating made its way through both chambers this week. HB 536 would allow any food establishment that serves food or drink to open and operate so long as they follow the 50% capacity for indoor dining outlined in the Governor’s order, limit their outdoor seating location to 50% of the current indoor capacity or 100 customers, whichever is less, and ensure the social distancing guidelines outlined by the CDC are followed and enforced. For bars to reopen under HB 536, all of the same conditions would apply as they do for restaurants, except all service would be limited to the outdoor seating location. The restaurant or bar’s outdoor seating area may include public sidewalks or streets, and local governments would not have the authority to prohibit the temporary outdoor seating location based on the reasoning that the area is not permitted for food and drink services under local zoning ordinances.

HB 536 would go into effect when it becomes law and would expire 30 days after the Governor’s executive order is lifted or October 31, 2020, whichever is sooner.

Supporters of the bill, Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson), who ran the bill in the House, and Sen. Rick Gunn (R-Alamance) who handled the bill in the Senate, urged their colleagues to support the bill as it would be a lifeline to many small business owners throughout the state struggling to make ends meet amid the COVID-19 public health crisis.

While alcohol-related legislation has spurred lively debate among members in the past, the alcohol provisions in HB 536 were not the cause of much of the controversy over the bill. Rep. Darren Jackson (D-Wake) and Rep. Robert Reives (D-Chatham) expressed their concerns with the bill on the House floor Thursday afternoon. Both members argued that the bill was an attempt to undermine the Governor’s orders and take away his emergency authority, as well as override the ability for local governments to make their own decisions on what is best for their municipality. 

Other supporters of the bill, such as Rep. Keith Kidwell (R-Beaufort) and Rep. Larry Pittman (R-Cabarrus), argued that this bill, while a step in the right direction, does not do enough to lift all of the restrictions placed on North Carolina businesses through recent executive orders. Both members argued that the Governor should not have the authority to shutter businesses and that reopening the state’s economy is long overdue.

Despite opposition from many House members, the bill passed the House through a 65-53 vote Thursday afternoon following the Senate’s 42-5 vote earlier in the day. The bill will now make its way to the Governor. 

Economic Support

As the legislature gets back into the regular swing of things, standing committees are starting to meet while select committees are winding down their operations. The House Select Committee on COVID-19, Economic Support Working Group held its last meeting Wednesday, voting as a committee to file three pieces of draft legislation. 

The first bill draft, UI Program Integrity – GDAC Funds, would allocate $2 million to the Division of Employment Security (DES) to contract with the Government Data Analytics Center to help detect and prevent both fraud and cybersecurity attacks. Rep. Julia Howard (R-Davie) told the committee the Secret Service has already notified the state of multiple instances of fraud and other security issues, and expressed the importance of moving quickly to allocate funds to help DES prevent these situations. 

The second bill draft, ABAWD Time Limit Waiver, would allow the Department of Health and Human Services to provide time waivers for people participating in food and nutrition benefits programs. The draft proposes an allowance of one year for the waiver. Rep. Michael Wray (D-Northampton) explained that with the increased need for benefits due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many food and nutrition services recipients across the state will be at risk of losing their benefits. This bill draft is aimed at helping families through this period of economic uncertainty. 

The final bill draft of the three approved by the committee, Satellite Broadband Grants, would create a program similar to the state’s existing rural broadband program, providing grants for equipment related to satellite-based broadband and appropriating money for that purpose. Members expressed their support for the initiative, noting that a dramatically increased amount of North Carolinians are having to work and attend school from home, but do not have reliable access to inexpensive broadband. They noted that this is a particularly desperate struggle in the more rural parts of the state. Rep. Jason Saine (R-Lincoln), the longtime leader in the NC House for information technology policies, explained that this draft would allow the use of low-latency satellites to provide broadband that is faster and less expensive than existing satellites or laying new fiber.

These three draft bills were officially filed Wednesday and referred to committees for discussion and votes. 

Senate Action

Senate lawmakers were back in Raleigh this week for a packed week of committee meetings and floor sessions. The Senate Commerce Committee met Wednesday to discuss a topic that is much lighter than most of what the legislature has been working on lately. The committee took up a piece of proposed legislation that would allow and regulate the use of delivery robots, or Personal Delivery Devices (PDD) in the state. SB 739: Personal Delivery Device/PDD/Delivery Robots is a product of a collaboration between the legislature and industry stakeholders, including the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce and the League of Municipalities.

The proposed legislation would allow the use of small, rolling robotic devices to complete the “last mile” leg of product deliveries. The bill addresses safety precautions by including restrictions on speed limit, requirements for human monitoring, and allowances for humans to take over control of the PDD if necessary. Sen. Jim Perry (R-Lenoir) told the committee that last-mile delivery is often responsible for around 50% of the total cost of delivery. Perry explained that PDDs are essentially boxes on wheels or track systems that secure cargo and provide contactless delivery to recipients who are able to open the box using their smart phones. He said some places are already using this technology to deliver food, and some hospitals use it to deliver medication.

After adopting some clarifying language, the bill was passed as amended and rolled out of committee. 

Also this week, the Senate Appropriations Committee met to discuss three specific appropriations: SB 801: Military Presence Stabilization Fund/FundingSB 806: Capital Appropriation – Western Carolina Univ., and SB 836: State Operations/Increase Federal Funds Use

An amendment to SB 801, which was adopted by the committee, added the financial piece needed to remove $2 million from the film and entertainment grant fund and appropriate it to the military stabilization fund to help with the state’s Base Realignment and Closure efforts. 

SB 806 would appropriate $16.5 million to Western Carolina to aid in the renovation of the university’s steam plant. Sen. Brent Jackson (R-Sampson) explained that this allocation would complete the General Assembly’s obligation to that project which began years ago. Sen. Don Davis (D-Pitt) agreed that Western Carolina’s steam plant needs these repairs, but expressed concern that other state universities that are part of the NC Promise program, particularly Elizabeth City State University, have critical infrastructure needs that are just as pressing and require immediate attention. Sen. Jackson agreed that those needs are critical, but explained that this project is already nearly completed and the NCGA must finish paying for it before they can address other priorities.

SB 836, on which there was no discussion, would add an additional $300 million to the original $70 million being sent over to the State Office of Budget and management. The money would come out of the COVID-19 reserve account. All three of the bills up for discussion were given a favorable report and voted out of committee.

House Appropriations

The full House Appropriations Committee met Thursday morning to take on the Proposed Committee Substitutes (PCS) to three bills: HB 1063: Fund VIPER Tower Hardware UpgradesHB 1187: 2020 Omnibus Appropriations Act, and HB 1208: Funding for Workforce Housing Loan Program. The PCS to HB 1063 proposes a $19 million appropriation to upgrade infrastructure to the state’s emergency communications system, known as the Voice Interoperability Plan for Emergency Responders, or VIPER. The system was already on track to be upgraded after a 2018 Program Evaluation Division study determined VIPER is required for public safety but needs major upgrades. The 20-year-old equipment stopped being serviced by the manufacturer in January of 2019. Committee members emphasized that with the increased need for reliable first responder communications due to the COVID-19 emergency, upgrading the infrastructure is more critical than ever. The VIPER network covers the communication systems for not only law enforcement officers, but the state’s medical network as well, including all of the state’s 100+ hospital emergency rooms and EMS. The appropriation will be a federally-approved expense out of the state’s available $2 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund. The proposed bill was unanimously approved by the committee, followed by unanimous passage on the House floor later in the afternoon.

The PCS to HB 1187, which changed the bill’s name to “Raise the Age Funding,” allocated the next chunk of money needed to continue with the state’s Raise the Age program, which made changes to how the state houses many incarcerated minors. The program requires more housing for minors who are awaiting trial or are currently incarcerated to keep them out of adult prisons and provide more appropriate accommodations. The proposed bill allocates funds for the renovation of two existing juvenile facilities and for the construction of a new facility in Rockingham County. The bill also proposes funding to pay for private security for the Rockingham County facility so corrections officers can focus their attention on monitoring the inmates who will be working on constructing the facility. The bill would fund these efforts by moving a little over $10 million from the Statewide Misdemeanant Confinement Fund to the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice. The PCS was voted out of the committee and later passed unanimously on the House floor. 

The PCS to HB 1208, which was also voted out of committee and unanimously approved on the House floor, would simply provide a continuation of financial support for the workforce housing loan program. This legislation would allow the state to pull down matching federal funds to aid with the continuation of the program. 

Upcoming Legislative Meetings

Monday, June 1

2:00PM House: Session Convenes

2:00PM Senate: Session Convenes

4:30PM Senate: Rules and Operations of the Senate

Tuesday, June 2

10:00AM House: Education – K-12

11:00AM Senate: Select Committee on Prison Safety

1:00PM House: Homeland Security, Military, and Veterans Affairs

3:00PM House: State and Local Government

Thursday, June 4

10:00AM House: Judiciary