Bars and gyms still in limbo with legislation, lawsuits pending

Published 6:00 pm Friday, June 12, 2020

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

A bill to reopen gyms and bars in a limited capacity sits on North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk going into the weekend, with no firm answers on whether he plans to exercise his veto power.

Under House Bill 594, which cleared both the N.C. House of Representatives and N.C. Senate this week, fitness facilities, gyms and bars would be allowed to operate under conditions, including reduced capacity, employee screening and increased cleaning. The bill also leaves authority for the governor to reclose those businesses with the concurrence of the North Carolina Council of State.

In the Senate, the H.B. 594 passed Tuesday by a vote of 36-13, enough to clear the two-thirds vote required to override a gubernatorial veto. The N.C. House, however, was more divided, passing the measure 69-50. The vote in the House was mostly along party lines. Four Democrats sided with Republicans in voting for the bill.

Beaufort County’s legislators, Sen. Erica Smith and Rep. Keith Kidwell, both voted in the affirmative.

“At the end of the day, I didn’t feel that these industries should be treated differently from any other industries,” Smith said. “We are at a point now where it’s going to be very difficult to mitigate the economic damages for everyone. Our economy cannot sustain not opening up these business sectors.”

Kidwell expressed a similar sentiment, pointing out the importance of gyms in helping people maintain their overall health, and the rights of all business owners to earn a living.

“You have a right to operate your business,” Kidwell said. “The N.C. Supreme Court ruled in 1940 and they’ve ruled four additional times since then, that you have an inalienable right in the state of North Carolina to do business.”

In the N.C. House, leaders on both sides of the aisle also shared their reasoning for or against supporting the legislation.

“Gov. Cooper’s inconsistent actions have left businesses and families struggling and frustrated. It is time to let the private sector lead with smart health and safety measures to get North Carolinians back to work,” N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore said.

House Minority Leader Darren Jackson, a Democrat, countered that notion, accusing Republicans of not taking the virus seriously enough, as the case count continued to climb statewide this week.

“I wish we could at least agree this is more serious than the flu, but I continue to hear people say it’s not,” Jackson said. “Ten weeks into the (first) death in the state, we’ve had eight times the average number of deaths for the flu in North Carolina, and yet here we are today, taking the ability from our scientists, from our public health experts, to do something about it.”

During a Friday press conference, Cooper expressed skepticism over the bill, but gave no firm indication whether he planned to veto it.

“We will review that legislation,” Cooper said. “Obviously, we would rather do it through executive order, because I think that legislation makes the process much more clumsy and much more difficult to change in the event we had to reinstate an executive order. We’re going to review that bill and will let you know what we do with that when we make a decision.”

The week prior, Cooper vetoed another bill that would have allowed bars to reopen across the state, saying the legislation, “would limit the ability of leaders to respond quickly to COVID-19 and hamper the health and safety of every North Carolinian.”

A series of lawsuits challenging the closure of bars and gyms have so far been unsuccessful. This week, a Wake County judge denied a request from gym owners seeking a temporary injunction of the Governor’s executive orders closing their businesses. Another lawsuit by the North Carolina Bar and Tavern Association seeking a similar injunction is still pending.

A request for comment sent to Cooper’s press office was unanswered as of press time.