Cooper admin seeking ‘middle ground’ on church restrictions

Secretary of the NC Department Health and Human Services Dr. Mandy Cohen speaks as Gov. Roy Cooper looks on during a briefing on North Carolina’s coronavirus pandemic response Tuesday, May 5, 2020 at the NC Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP)

RALEIGH — North Carolina legislators and leading sheriffs want Gov. Roy Cooper to clarify or remove a portion of his executive order that limits how religious services can convene under his stay-at-home orders.

Cooper’s health and human services secretary said on Monday that state lawyers and others are taking a second look at the language designed to provide an exception to the continued ban on mass gatherings of more than 10 people.

The governor’s order said the permitted worship services “shall take place outdoors unless impossible.” While 18 Republican state senators wrote the Democratic governor thanking him for allowing worship services to proceed, they said faith leaders were worried about what “impossible” meant. Outdoor services could be impossible due to bad weather, the lack of suitable outdoor space or potential damage to equipment, they said.

Clairification is necessary so that faith organizations can plan “without fear of potential criminal penalties if they don’t reach the correct interpretation of ‘impossible,’” the senators wrote.

The 12-member executive committee of the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association went farther, asking Cooper to simply allow indoor church services, saying the modified order’s restrictions and guidelines for churches should be no more severe as those for retailers. Most businesses can open now as long as they limit customer occupancy, usually to 50% of what the fire code allows.

The order’s wording “creates interpetation and enforcement issues for law enforcement,” according to the resolution dated Friday and first reported by the North State Journal.

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said retailers and churches were being treated differently because there’s a higher risk of spreading the virus when people are indoors and sitting down. The first phase of Cooper’s three-phase plan to ease restrictions that began in March is designed to promote low-risk activities, such as walking around in a store or going outdoors. The latest order also encourages social distancing and wearing face masks.

“We don’t want to interrupt anyone’s ability to worship, to pray, but we want to keep folks safe,” Cohen told reporters. “That’s why we’re trying to find this middle ground.”

More than 15,000 positive cases have been reported in North Carolina during the pandemic with 550 virus-related deaths, according to DHHS data. The agency released new information on Monday that estimates more than 9,100 people who have tested positive are presumed to have recovered. That number is based on median 14-day recovery periods for people who weren’t hospitalized and 28 days for those who were hospitalized.