On Wednesday Governor Cooper announced a new executive order that eases several previous COVID-19 restrictions. The order would allow bars and restaurants to serve alcohol until 11:00 PM, increase the cap on outdoor gatherings to 25, and increase the occupancy limit on many businesses. In addition, it would allow for 30% capacity (up to a 250-person cap) at most sporting events. This provision goes some way toward addressing the wishes of lawmakers who advanced a bill to allow 40% capacity at high school sporting events. Sponsors of the bill, SB 116, say they still intend to pursue its passage.
On Friday Governor Cooper vetoed SB 37, a bill that would require school districts to provide in-person instruction, citing its incompatibility with federal and state COVID-19 safety guidelines. The General Assembly is preparing to vote to override Cooper’s veto. While most school districts in the state already offer some in-person instruction, those that have stayed remote-only -- such as Durham Public Schools -- would have to reopen 15 days from the bill’s passage.
Economic and Housing Policy
On Thursday the House Finance Committee cleared HB 107. The bill, which would make various changes to the state unemployment system, includes provisions to fix the unemployment tax rate for employers at 1.9% rather than raising it according to existing state law and to reinstate work-search requirements for those claiming non-COVID-19-related unemployment. North Carolina’s unemployment tax rate for employers is currently the fourth lowest in the country.
On Thursday HB 76 passed the House Finance Committee unanimously. The bill would close a loophole that allows out-of-state debt settlement companies to operate in North Carolina, where predatory debt settlement is already prohibited. Though the bill already passed the House last year, lobbying efforts by debt settlement companies stopped it from passing the Senate. The bill has bipartisan support.
Health Care Policy
On Tuesday Wake County Superior Court Judge Michael O’Foghluda ruled against a group of North Carolina hospitals that had sued the NC DHHS over their awarding of Managed Care Organization (MCO) contracts during the Medicaid transformation process. The group of hospitals, called My Health by My Providers, had argued that the original legislative vision would have awarded MCO contracts to providers like those in their group, including Duke Health and UNC Health Care, instead of large national insurance companies. A spokesperson indicated Tuesday that the group is still considering appealing the ruling.
On Tuesday HB 91, a bill that would expand access to treatment for people with autism, passed the House Health Committee unanimously. The bill would allow applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapists, who currently must be supervised by a specialized psychologist, to be licensed to practice independently. North Carolina, the only state that requires such supervision, only has 62 such specialized psychologists, severely limiting access to behavioral therapy for autism within the state. The bill has significant bipartisan support.
Gun Violence Prevention
On Wednesday the Senate Judiciary Committee cleared SB 43, a bill that would allow for concealed carry of guns outside of school hours at religious facilities that also serve as educational facilities. Concealed carry is currently prohibited at educational institutions in North Carolina; this bill would create an exemption for such places that are also places of religious worship. The bill is scheduled for debate on March 1.
On Wednesday HB 48 cleared the House Judiciary Committee. The bill would allow paramedics to carry concealed weapons when they embed with SWAT teams or work with law enforcement in emergency situations. The bill will likely appear before the full House this week.
On Thursday the North Carolina Department of Public Safety announced a settlement with the NC NAACP and other plaintiffs who had alleged that the state has inadequately protected incarcerated people during the COVID-19 pandemic. The settlement, approved by Wake County Superior Judge Vince Rozier, Jr.,includes a commitment from DPS to release 3,500 people early from prison, a number the ACLU (another plaintiff) described as “unprecedented.” It also mandates the implementation of additional COVID-19 prevention measures in prisons. The case will be stayed for 180 days while the settlement agreement is implemented.