FAQ: Answering some key questions about Gov. Cooper’s ‘stay-at-home’ COVID-19 order

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Gov. Roy Cooper’s March 27 executive order No. 121 served as a “stay-at-home order,” as well as issuing “strategic directions for North Carolina in response to increasing COVID-19 cases,” and it went into effect at 5 p.m. yesterday.

So what does a “stay-at-home order” actually mean? What qualifies as an “essential business”? What other things need some clarifying? Here’s an FAQ just for those of you asking those questions.

Why was this issued?

The executive order states that health care officials and experts “have expressed concerns that unless the spread of COVID-19 is limited,” hospitals will be overrun, and “limit(ing) unnecessary person-to-person contact in workplaces and communities” is essential and deemed “reasonably necessary” to try to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Cooper’s order also says that the governors office has “determined that local control of the emergency is insufficient to ensure adequate protection for the lives and property of North Carolinians.”

Essentially, the order codifies the need for social distancing as a means of trying to slow down the spread of the disease, and local measures are either not being taken, not enough or not effective enough to cover the areas where it’s needed. Additionally, Cooper’s order states, “the scale of the emergency is so great that it exceeds the capability of local authorities to cope with it.”

How long will this be in effect?

As of now, the order will be in effect until 30 days from March 30, meaning April 29. That date is effective “unless repealed, replaced or rescinded by another applicable Executive Order.” Additionally, cancelling the state of emergency declaration will also nullify the order.

What gives the governor the authority to do this?

N.C. General Statute 166A-19.10 designates powers of the governor as part of the “State Emergency Management Program.” The statute givers the governor power to “exercise general direction and control of the State Emergency Management Program” and “make, amend or rescind the necessary orders, rules, and regulations within the limits of the authority conferred upon the Governor herein, with due consideration of the policies of the federal government.” Furthermore, 166A-19.30 allows the governor, during a declared state of emergency, to “regulate and control...the congregation of persons in public places or buildings” as well as “control ingress and egress of an emergency area, the movement of persons within the area, and the occupancy of premises therein.”

The law gives the governor fairly broad powers in these types of circumstances. The language mentioned in the previous question is found within the same statute as that just mentioned. The statute also says the governor is allowed “to perform and exercise such other functions, powers, and duties as are necessary to promote and secure the safety and protection of the civilian population.”

What does a ‘stay at home’ order mean?

The governor’s executive order charges residents to stay at home or their current place of residence “except as allowed in this Executive Order” — meaning for what’s deemed “Essential Activities, Essential Governmental Operations or to participate in or access COVID-19 Essential Businesses and Operations, all as defined below.” Essentially, you are to stay at home unless you need to participate in activities including those for health and safety, for necessary supplies and services, for outdoor activity, for certain types of work, to take care of others, going to a place of worship, to receive goods and services, to go to your place of residence and volunteering.

It seems fairly broad, but there are some specifics. For example, as long as you are engaging in proper social distancing and avoiding gatherings of 10 people or more, you can go walking, hiking, running and even golfing. You can visit public parks, but since “public playground equipment may increase the spread of COVID-19,” the order says, all public playgrounds are closed.” You can attend weddings and funerals, but they must also comply with social distancing and mass gathering requirements. Funerals are an exception to the 10-person requirement, instead allowing 50 “in an effort to promote human dignity and limit suffering.”

What counts as an ‘Essential Business’?

Lots of things. It might be easier to say what doesn’t count, but here’s a sampling: dental offices, eye care centers, adoption agencies, child care centers, food and beverage production, solid waste and recycling collection and removal, grocery stores, nonprofits “when providing food, shelter, social services and other necessities of life,” religious entities, newspapers, film, gas stations, post offices, laundromats, airlines and other transportation “necessary to access COVID-19 Essential Businesses and Operations” and book stores “that sell educational material.”

The list is very long and covers nearly four pages of the 10-page executive order. But those businesses are required to meet certain standards, including maintaining social distancing standards, washing hands “as frequently as possible” and “facilitating online or remote access by customers if possible.”

If your business does not count as an “Essential Business,” you can still operate, but have two restrictions: only doing the “minimum necessary activities” to keep operating and preserve your company’s value, as well as making sure employees can work remotely, if possible.

Previously-closed businesses like nail salons, hair stylists, gyms, yoga studios, bowling alleys, tattoo and massage parlors, movie theaters and live performance venues are to remain closed.

So the ‘mass gathering’ number is now at 10?

Yes. The order lowers the number of people allowed at a “mass gathering” from 50 to 10, with the exception of funerals. However, this number doesn’t apply to normal operations at any places deemed as “Essential Businesses” or operations.

What happens if I violate the order?

The order says violations are subject to prosecution and punishable as a Class 2 misdemeanor, the normal punishment given to someone who violates an executive order. General Statute 15A-1340.23 mandates the maximum punishment is a 60-day prison sentence and a $1,000 fine. According to the website of Wiley Nickel, a Cary-based attorney, other Class 2 misdemeanors include simple assault, disorderly conduct and resisting a police officer.

What if I’m going to work? Do I need papers?

The Executive Order does not clarify whether or not an individual needs “papers” or some kind of identifying document to go to their job or place of businesses. An FAQ put out by the governor’s office, however, states that neither businesses nor employees are required to have specific documentation “to report to work under this Order.”

What about local orders?

The governor’s order supersedes all local orders, unless that order is of greater restriction than the governor’s. Wording within the order states that “nothing herein is intended to limit or prohibit” cities and counties from putting “greater restrictions or prohibitions,” as long as it is allowed under state law.

“The undersigned [Cooper] recognizes that the impact of COVID-19 has been and will likely continue to be different in different parts of North Carolina,” the order states. “Urban areas have seen more rapid and significant spread than most rural areas of the state.”

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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