Local legislators share their views on reopening the state

While Gov. Roy Cooper last week announced a three-phase plan to gradually reopen North Carolina’s economy, which has been devastated due to the coronavirus pandemic, not all local representatives are in agreement that the state government should have that authority.

Rep. Wayne Sasser (R-Stanly) believes that a concerted, statewide approach to reopening is not needed since each county is in its own unique position. Large, urban counties like Mecklenburg, which has more than 1,500 cases and 43 deaths, he said, are in a different situation than smaller, more rural counties like Stanly, which has only 28 cases and four deaths. As of Tuesday, there are still four counties that don’t have any reported cases, according to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.

Sasser believes individual counties should have the autonomy to decide when to reopen. The sentiment is in line with the Stanly County commissioners, who drafted a letter to Cooper urging him to allow counties to decide when to reopen.

Wayne Sasser

In a Facebook video posted last week, Sasser explained that those that are healthy should return to work, while acknowledging the vulnerable (older adults and those with underlying medical conditions) should protect themselves and continue to isolate. With more people back to work, he said the number of reported COVID-19 cases will increase, but few will die. Communities would also begin to develop herd immunity, which is when enough people in an area become immune to the disease that it stops the disease from spreading.

Sasser said that while the state has largely flattened the curve and is now working to determine “the best way to live with the virus until we get a vaccine,” the state simply cannot continue to remain closed and wait until a vaccine is created — which could take more than a year.

The longer the counties remain closed, the worse the long-term effects will be, Sasser said. County Manager Andy Lucas acknowledged that the ripple effects of the pandemic will likely have an impact on the county for years to come and will likely impact the next couple of budgets. He said sales tax revenue in the county has already plummeted.

The first phase of Cooper’s plan, which tentatively goes into effect May 9, would allow people to travel to nonessential businesses, though gatherings would still be limited to no more than 10 people. Teleworking would be encouraged, people should still wear face coverings and stores should put in measures for social distancing. Phase two would lift the stay-at-home order, though vulnerable people should still stay home. Restaurants, bars, fitness centers, personal care services and other businesses, along with public parks, could reopen, provided they follow proper safety measures.

Phase three, which would likely occur sometime in July, would increase capacity at gatherings or businesses and lessen restrictions for vulnerable populations.

In order to begin lifting restrictions, the state needs to have a decrease of cases and hospitalization over 14 days, which is believed to be the incubation period for COVID-19. Testing for the virus and contact tracing need to be increased as well.

Republican State Sen. Carl Ford, whose district includes Stanly, wants the state to open up as soon as possible. He said if the government in Raleigh is to decide when North Carolina reopens, it should be up to General Assembly, not Cooper. He called Cooper’s plan too vague with no concrete dates.

But Ford, like Sasser, believes that counties should have the ultimate authority on when to reopen.

Ford, who has met and marched with several ReOpen NC protestors in Raleigh the past two weeks, said he has talked with several people in the district and most want to get back to work. Ford said he’s heard from medical experts that say people need to get back to work in order to build herd immunity to prepare for a possible resurgence of the virus in the fall.

Carl Ford

Rep. Scott Brewer, a Democrat whose district encompasses Richmond, Montgomery and part of Stanly, said Cooper has “struck the right balance” between listening to his health officials while also cautiously beginning to reopen the state. He called the three-phase plan “realistic”and “one that is likely to take place” provided people continue to stay home and social distance when in public.

“The last thing we want to do is reopen and have a huge wave hit,” in terms of COVID-19 cases, Brewer said. “That would be far worse than anything we’re doing now.”

Scott Brewer

While he understands the notion of allowing each individual county to decide when to reopen, he said it could lead to a flood of people from one county entering another, which could cause a spike in the number of cases.

“We’re such a mobile state,” Brewer said, noting that people often live and work in separate counties.

He believes it’s better to open the state “all at the same time.”

Brewer stressed that even though businesses want to reopen, they also want to be cautious and make sure they can do so in as safe an environment as possible. He pointed out that many businesses in Georgia, which have been given the green light by Gov. Brian Kemp to reopen, have declined to do so out of safety concerns.

“The governor knows that we need to reopen, but he wants to make sure we don’t risk the lives of our citizens,” Brewer said.