Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:

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Dec. 1

The Salisbury Post on a bar in North Carolina that was ordered to close its indoor operation:

This year has been challenging for businesses of all types, especially businesses whose revenue has fallen off a cliff because of COVID-19 restrictions or lockdowns.

Riding high just several months ago, owners of businesses like the Fish Bowl are at a low point and pondering whether it might be the end of the line.

Set aside for a moment the nature of the business — a bar — and focus on the reality of the lives being affected. These are business owners and hourly workers who have waited with bated breath about whether restrictions would allow them to open their doors. It seems clear they’ve tried to comply and only been met with inconsistencies.

To try and keep their doors open, the Fish Bowl embraced a food truck that it had stationed on its back patio prior to the pandemic. The goal, says co-owner Chris Ostle, was to fit in under the definition of a restaurant. But the food truck didn’t cut it. So, the business spent thousands to renovate a closet and bathroom to become a kitchen. That worked for a while, but this month Alcohol Law Enforcement agents said the Fish Bowl needed to close its indoor operation, owners told reporter Ben Stansell in a story published Sunday (“Near breaking point”).

The Fish Bowl can serve people outdoors, but the capacity limits are so small that it’s somewhere between difficult and impossible for Ostle to imagine a way to keep things going as is. Meanwhile, there are other businesses that serve alcohol and food that have not been affected to the same degree. It’s confusing that the Fish Bowl was allowed to have customers indoors from July to November and now must shift its plans. With changes only to mask-wearing rules and gathering limits, the state has been in phase three for several weeks.

If there’s an easily explainable reason for the change, state officials have some explaining to do. They must also strive for consistency in application of the law. The governor and those charged with implementing his executive orders should ask themselves what makes a place like the Fish Bowl more dangerous for COVID-19 spread than sit-down restaurants, particularly those where alcohol is a significant part of the business model. That’s not a knock against anyone in particular, but it is worth wondering how someone is more likely to spread COVID-19 in a sparsely populated bar that’s trying to do the right thing than a sit-down restaurant where food sales are a greater percentage of the revenue.

Legislators, meanwhile, need to consider whether they’ve done enough to provide assistance to businesses that are struggling because of state restrictions. Millions in CARES Act funding sits unspent in North Carolina because of disagreements about whether broadband expansion is an OK expenditure. Broadband expansion is much-needed in rural areas of the state, but it doesn’t help to quibble over internet when some people just need a paycheck for bills, food and medicine.

For some, the Fish Bowl won’t get any sympathy because it has historically been a bar and, as Ostle said, “always had the big flashing lights and bullseye on our back.” But the failure of the Fish Bowl means another vacant space downtown. And there are already too many of those.

The Fish Bowl is not drawing large crowds that are likely to spread COVID-19 any more than interactions people might have during their daily lives. If that changes and the business isn’t following precautions like requiring patrons to wear a mask, enforcing capacity limits and conducting regular cleaning, it’s fair to bring harsh punishment. If the state must move backward because of a worsening outbreak, that’s understandable, too. At the moment, however, it’s apparent that the state could do a better job of equally evaluating coronavirus risks.

Online: https://www.salisburypost.com/

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Nov. 29

The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer on research showing a drop in arrests, probation violations and jail populations in North Carolina:

The two defining events of 2020, the surge in COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests, involve separate issues, but in an inexorable way the pandemic and the protests have converged to change, at least temporarily, the criminal justice system.

As the pandemic has reduced public activity, arrests have dropped. Meanwhile, sheriffs and prosecutors have taken steps to reduce jail populations to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They are putting fewer people in jail for probation violations and nonviolent offenses and bail requirements are being reduced or waived. The result is a criminal justice system that is bending toward what the Black Lives Matter protesters seek – a system less needlessly punitive, especially toward Black Americans.

The News & Observer’s Virginia Bridges recently reported on the drop in North Carolina arrests, probation violations and jail populations based on statistics compiled by researchers at the UNC School of Government. The examples she cites are startling and should be encouraging:

• Arrests in Raleigh fell nearly 40 percent from January to September of this year.

• The number of people sent back to prison or jail after having their probation revoked during those months fell 53% statewide.

• The number of people in county jails across the state dropped by nearly 30% from February to July.

LASTING REDUCTIONS

The reductions raise two questions. First, has a lighter hand in probation violation arrests and holding fewer people in jail endangered the public? If not, can the usually crowded and costly criminal justice system retain these reductions and efficiencies once normal social and business activity resumes?

The answer to the first question requires more study. Some cities in North Carolina and nationwide have experienced a sharp rise in shootings during the pandemic, but robberies and property crimes have dropped. There is no evidence yet that more violent crime is connected to reduced incarceration. Some experts trace the rise to an increase in gun sales and the social and economic stresses of the pandemic.

In any case, the lowering of the criminal justice system’s usual volume has let prosecutors, law enforcement officials and lawmakers consider whether the previous levels of arrests and jailing were necessary.

Recommendations on that issue and other aspects of North Carolina’s criminal justice system will be coming soon. In response to the Black Lives Matter protests, Gov. Roy Cooper in July commissioned the North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice. The group, which includes police, criminal justice advocates and elected officials, is co-chaired by state Attorney General Josh Stein and state Supreme Court Associate Justice Anita Earls. The task force will release its full recommendations in a report to Cooper on Dec. 15.

State Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat who previously served as an assistant district attorney in Durham and as a district court judge, is a member of the task force and chair of its working group on court procedures.

EYE-OPENING DATA

Morey said she was impressed by the members’ ability to reach consensus on the need for changes after being presented with statistics on racial discrimination within the criminal justice system.

“The consensus that came forward I was really pleased with,” she said. “The data shown to us opened our eyes.”

The task force has already indicated it will recommend the decriminalization of the possession of up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana, a charge brought disproportionately against Blacks. But Morey said the task force also will call for much broader reforms “from the beginning of the criminal process to the end — the death penalty.”

“I think it will be a very bold report,” she said. “I hope there will be recommendations to achieve real changes for racial equity.”

The pandemic has created a painful disruption in the economy and social connections. But it has also exposed inequities. Once the pandemic passes, we hope the criminal justice system can stick with and build on changes that have fostered fairness in the treatment of all who pass through the state’s courts, jails and prisons.

Online: https://www.newsobserver.com/

Online: https://www.charlotteobserver.com/

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Nov. 26

Winston Salem-Journal on an anti-poverty plan that was recently approved by the Winston-Salem City Council:

Not everyone had a great Thanksgiving this year. Some had to skip family gatherings and fancy dinners.

Those who feasted should be doubly thankful.

Others skip such comforts on a daily basis, and not by choice. Food insecurity remains a problem, in the Triad and elsewhere. The means to survive is a continuing human issue, even in a country as rich as ours.

At last week’s Winston-Salem City Council meeting, the council approved a plan that would spend an additional $1 million to help the city’s underprivileged residents.

The plan, recommended by an appointed committee that met for months, would use $200,000 for anti-poverty and social-justice programs; $200,000 to address long-term needs in the same areas; $300,000 for broadband expansion and training; $190,000 for heritage preservation and education; and $110,000 for mentoring and improving the ability of neighborhoods to keep improvement efforts going. The hope is to invest the money for long-term returns, tackling the root causes of crime and poverty.

But while the plan was approved, the spending has not yet been. The next step is for the city to ask community organizations to submit proposals for tackling any of the five spending areas. The proposals will be sifted and scored before the council approves the spending.

The city also approved spending $1.35 million — divided between a loan and a grant — to support two apartment-development proposals that include affordable housing for working people — one as part of the Whitaker Park development and the other at Essex Place off Kester Mill Road in western Winston-Salem.

These decisions come at a time when the City Council is under pressure from many directions, including from nonprofit agencies that in the past have received generous support. But the city will have to tighten its belt. It simply can’t do everything it’s done before. Thanks to COVID-19 and other factors, tax revenues have been lower than anticipated. The city lost about $670,000 when this year’s fair had to be canceled.

The city’s budget deficit is projected to grow to $14.5 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year, which puts the city’s usable fund balance uncomfortably close to the 8% limit set in law.

Nobody’s happy about that.

“If anyone thinks we can fund people like we did last year or the year before, I don’t see that happening,” North Ward Council Member D.D. Adams said at the council meeting. “Get your mind right, because we are going to have to make some tough decisions. We are probably going to fall out like the family at the family cookout, but we are going to be OK.”

Sometimes it seems as if Winston-Salem has lurched from crisis to crisis — the Great Recession of 2008, watching some of our bedrock institutions move their headquarters to other locations in the 2010s and now the crippling economic results of a deadly pandemic. As for 2020, it can’t be over soon enough.

But we’ve had our successes over the years, too, including the development of new industries in the Innovation Quarter, gaining high-profile events like the Winston-Salem Open tennis tournament and the resurgence of our downtown.

We’re also regularly near the top in national rankings on startup growth, affordability and quality of life.

Still, this is a trying time.

Some may say that at a time like this, we can’t afford to help the underprivileged.

But at a time like this, we can’t turn away from them. They have even fewer resources on which to rely than the rest of us. They’re more likely to lose their jobs, their housing and their food security — and more likely to be vulnerable to this pandemic.

In the midst of these trials, the City Council hasn’t become cynical and selfish. For that, we’re thankful.

And we believe that Adams is right: We are going to be OK.

But if anyone has a direct line to Santa Claus, now might be a good time to use it.

Online: https://journalnow.com/