Gov. Cooper’s order brings unemployment relief, closes NC restaurants, bars to dine-in

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced all restaurants and bars must be closed to dine-in patrons starting Tuesday as restrictions on movement continue to ratchet up against the new coronavirus.

Cooper issued a new executive order directing the closings beginning at 5 p.m. for the next two weeks. The establishments can continue to offer takeout and delivery. Until now, bars and restaurants were exempted from Cooper's prohibition of assemblies of more than 100 people, but state health officials had discouraged crowds at those locations and urged safe distancing.

"We know that more people will get sick and that lives are in danger," Cooper said at a news conference. "Therefore, reasonable but strong actions are needed now to help suppress the spread of this virus and to save lives."

Cooper's order also seeks to remove barriers so employees harmed financially by closings in commerce due to COVID-19 restrictions to obtain unemployment benefits.

Many of those directives mentioned, however, already are taking effect due to a state law passed in 2017 addressing federal disasters. The changes include eliminating the one-week waiting period after a job loss to apply for benefits, as well as the requirement to apply in person. Displaced workers also won't have to be actively looking for a new job, as is required for traditional benefits, and employers who must lay off workers won't be financially responsible for the benefits their workers receive.

"These changes are designed to lessen the hit on our economy and workers' wallets," the governor said. "The new reality is that people will be losing jobs and businesses have lost customers."

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While Cooper said he also expects action on unemployment benefits from the federal government, North Carolina stands in good fiscal shape on that front with $3.8 billion in the state's jobless benefit reserve. The state's maximum benefit is $350 per week.

North Carolina state government had counted 40 residents who tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday morning, with 15 of those living in Wake County and seven in Mecklenburg. No deaths have been reported in the state.

Over the weekend, Cooper issued an order prohibiting the mass gatherings and closing the K-12 public schools for at least two weeks. University of North Carolina system schools and private colleges are preparing for online learning, and many have signaled a return to campus in the spring semester is unlikely. The UNC system said on Tuesday that students in university housing should return home, with some exceptions. Community colleges also are canceling face-to-face classes and shifting more to online instruction.

State health officials are pointing to other federal guidance limiting assemblies to less than 50 people or even 10 people. But Cooper's earlier order preventing gatherings over 100 is what police and sheriffs' deputies are enforcing.

The state Division of Motor Vehicles said on Tuesday it would close 60 driver's license offices that have the fewest examiner stations and whose layouts prevent social distancing. And Dare County, on the Outer Banks, is limiting entry, with checkpoints set up to maintain access for permanent residents, property owners and workers in the county.

Elsewhere, six members of the Winston-Salem City Council and two city staff members are in self-quarantine until March 26 over concerns that they could have been exposed to the virus. The city said on its webpage that all eight learned on Tuesday that they attended the Congressional City Conference in Washington, D.C., last week with two people who were confirmed to have COVID-19. The council's meeting on March 23 has been canceled.

North Carolina residents are pitching in within the state and other parts of the world.

Volunteers are playing a role to ensure students in low-income families receive meals during the school hiatus. And Boone-based Samaritan's Purse, led by the Rev. Franklin Graham, announced it's using a cargo plane to send a 68-bed emergency field hospital, with 20 tons of medical equipment, to Italy to help battle the coronavirus.

The virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, for most people, but severe illness is more likely in the elderly and people with existing health problems. Worldwide, COVID-19 has killed over 7,300 people so far but more than 80,000 have recovered.