Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:
The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer on the federal coronavirus pandemic relief package:
With the $900 billion federal stimulus package passed Monday, Republicans in Congress got their wish – none of it will go to directly assist cities and towns.
The opposition to helping local governments reflected Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s view that the package should not “bail out” blue cities that have supposedly mishandled their budgets apart from the pressures of the pandemic.
But that partisan slap will also hit a lot of Republican and nonpartisan municipal governments. And it will be especially painful not for big northern cities, but rural towns – like many in North Carolina – that are struggling to remain solvent.
U.S. Rep David Price, a Democrat representing parts of the Triangle and rural towns in the state’s 4th District, said in a statement, “The lack of direct state and local aid in the COVID-19 relief package was a stunning omission. This is not a red state or a blue state problem, nor a large city versus small town problem – the funding shortfalls are widespread and must be addressed.”
Salisbury Mayor Karen Alexander, vice president of the North Carolina League of Municipalities, is dismayed that aid to local governments was a casualty of partisanship.
“On the local level we are nonpartisan. We are not dealing with things that have a blue or red bent,” she told the Editorial Board. “We are dealing where the rubber meets the road. These are essential services that our citizens need every day no matter what party you lean toward.”
The omission in the relief bill punishes those on the front lines of the pandemic response – teachers, firefighters, police and public health departments. And it jeopardizes a level of government that provides the basic infrastructure and services local businesses need to function.
Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer said Congress must reconsider funding local governments. “Cities in North Carolina depend on revenues that have been impacted by the pandemic, so cities and counties are also in need of federal support just to maintain basic services,” she said.
North Carolina’s local governments received relief in the first stimulus bill passed in the spring. Since then they have gotten by by drawing on their reserve funds and with help from an uptick in sales tax revenue over the summer, thanks to the first wave of stimulus spending.
But the pandemic has gone on longer than expected and its lagging impact on cities and towns will begin showing early in the new year. In Salisbury, for instance, Mayor Alexander said her town of 35,000 is projecting a 13 percent drop in property tax revenue because of businesses closing.
Other towns face similar shortfalls compounded by lower revenue from water, sewer and electricity fees because of a statewide moratorium on utility cutoffs. Some municipalities have postponed capital projects, delays that result in lost construction jobs.
Alexander said the most severe impact will be on the smallest of the more than 500 North Carolina governments that are part of the League of Municipalities. They could face insolvency if their reserves and credit ratings fall below state-mandated levels.
“Those that have struggled over losing industry or population are already teetering on the precipice of financial disaster and then you throw this in,” she said.
There’s hope that municipalities can hold off on layoffs and service cuts if the incoming Biden administration provides help. Mayors are particularly hopeful that President-elect Joe Biden’s call for major infrastructure spending will bring an infusion of federal dollars into local government.
But McConnell and other Republicans in Congress may yet get in the way. They shouldn’t. The health of local governments shouldn’t be subject to partisan fighting. As Alexander put it: “It doesn’t matter if you are red or blue. It’s about green – the money to pay for all of the expenses that go into making a municipality run efficiently.”
The Greensboro News & Record on the coronavirus pandemic and the COVID-19 vaccines:
There’s no bigger story this week or this year than COVID-19, which continues to rage wildly through the U.S. and other countries.
As of Monday, 1,963 more Americans won’t be returning home this week to open Christmas presents.
North Carolina has thus far had almost 489,000 confirmed cases, with nearly 6,300 resulting in death. Statewide hospitalizations climbed past 3,000 for the first time.
Meanwhile, the nationwide total has swollen to more than 18 million cases and more than 320,000 deaths.
Guilford County on Tuesday reported an increase of 283 cases and one new death.
These constant statistics can be mind-numbing, especially as they are updated day in and day out.
So please remember: Each is a person — a mother, father, son, daughter, sister, brother, spouse, friend or co-worker — to someone.
The vaccines that are now being made available are game-changers, if they’re actually distributed properly and used.
In North Carolina, the arrival this week of a second vaccine, the Moderna version, in all 100 counties should begin to help.
State officials say they expect to receive 17,500 doses of the vaccine, which has received emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.
As many as 80,000 of those doses will go to the 63 hospitals that did not receive the Pfizer vaccine last week, as well as local health departments. The remainder of the doses will go to residents and staffs in nursing homes and long-term-care facilities.
Beyond the logistical challenges, it’s a question of hearts and minds.
According to a Gallup poll released last week, some 15% of Americans said they would refuse to be vaccinated. But this is progress. That number has dropped from almost 40% in September, so it’s likely the message is seeping through.
Some sharp wits have tried to remind skeptics that they’ve likely ingested or been exposed to riskier substances.
Several prominent politicians received the vaccine last week, hoping to assure the public that it’s safe. They included President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President Mike Pence — and a few other politicians, like Sen. Marco Rubio, whose access to the vaccine was called into question, not only because people in high-risk categories would seem a higher priority, but because these politicians had from the beginning taken pains to downplay the virus. Their acquiescence now seems more insult than irony.
More ironic is the news that while President Trump takes credit for speeding the production and distribution of vaccines through his successful Operation Warp Speed, some of his die-hard supporters say they don’t trust the vaccine to be safe.
So there are limits to their devotion.
Side effects of the vaccine, we’ve been told, include temporary arm pain and flu-like symptoms.
Side effects of the virus include job loss, food insecurity and the possibility of eviction.
Some 800 U.S. businesses have closed permanently every day for the past few months, according to a study by Yelp — nearly 100,000 — though the actual number may be significantly higher.
About 1.38 million North Carolinians have filed for unemployment since mid-March.
Of more immediate concern is the possibility of eviction. There’s no irony, only obscenity, in the thought of families being kicked out of their homes in the days preceding Christmas.
We realize that landlords have mortgages to pay. But forcing people on the street or into closer quarters with others only makes the situation worse.
We applaud the advocates of Housing Justice Now and similar organizations who are working to keep people in homes.
So much of this pain and tragedy could have been avoided if authorities had taken the virus seriously at its beginning and instituted proper precautions rather than try to downplay the menace. So much could have been avoided with government coordination to provide relief to landlords and renters alike; to employers and employees. But that would require accepting the premise that we are all in this together.
Winston Salem-Journal on coronavirus cases in North Carolina's prisons and jails:
“I was in prison, and you visited me,” said the teacher whose birth is celebrated on Friday in a parable, revealing a level of concern for the well being of even those who have been incarcerated for committing crimes.
It’s a level that isn’t always matched by his followers.
Sixty-eight inmates at the Forsyth County Jail have tested positive for COVID-19, the Journal’s Michael Hewlett reported earlier this week. That’s out of 568 inmates who were tested.
Eleven jail staff members have also tested positive.
That’s a 12% positivity rate, lower than the national average of 20%, Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough Jr. said. The infected inmates have been placed in separate cells in an assigned quarantine area, officials said.
Jail staff is taking essential steps. New inmates have to quarantine for 14 days. Every inmate is given at least two masks when they enter the jail.
Staff members also must wear masks at the jail. Their temperature is taken regularly and staff members with flu-like symptoms or a high temperature are told to stay home.
“Nobody deserves to die or have lifelong complications from a virus because they are unable to pay for their release,” the Forsyth County Community Bail Fund said in a statement. “Nobody deserves to get COVID-19 while waiting for a trial to argue their innocence.”
We agree. So we’re pleased with the steps being taken by jail staff and encourage them to do more — including releasing detainees when possible.
The situation has been worse in state prisons and other facilities.
Nash Correctional Institution, a mid-sized prison about 45 minutes east of Raleigh, had 149 infections out of 630 inmates on Friday — probably the worst in the state.
In North Carolina overall, 29 prisoners have died of COVID, according to the N.C. Department of Public Safety. They’re included in the 6,908 who have tested positive.
With more than 30,000 incarcerated, that number may seem small. But each detainee left behind parents, spouses, sons, daughters and other relatives who mourn their passing. Each loss is regrettable.
They also represent a number of people who still had a chance at redemption and the resumption of productive living.
They were each human.
Nationwide, at least 275,000 prisoners — one of every five state and federal prisoners in the U.S. — has tested positive for coronavirus, according to data collected by The Associated Press and The Marshall Project. That’s a rate more than four times as high as the general population.
More than 1,700 detainees have died nationwide.
Prison workers have also been disproportionately affected — nationwide, one in five.
Prisons were no more expecting a pandemic outbreak than bakeries. But they may have been less prepared than any other category of facility.
With dormitory style housing and cafeterias, prisons are often overcrowded and poorly ventilated. It’s difficult for prison populations to maintain social distancing. They can’t exactly leave.
Prisons are already rough and stressful environments. Some lack some of the most basic amenities that the rest of us take for granted. The N.C. Correctional Institution for Women has no air conditioning. The Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women placed some quarantined inmates in a hall that had no heat in the sleeping area for several days, Carolina Public Press reported last week.
Inmates are already sicker on average than the general population and they have less access to medical care.
In a case currently before a state judge, advocacy groups are urging an expansion of a house-arrest policy that would remove less risky prisoners from incarceration. There are plenty of first-time nonviolent offenders, men and women alike, who could be moved to house arrest without posing a threat to public safety. There also are minimum-custody offenders who have shown — through work release, home visits and supervised community outings — that they can be trusted. Such an expansion would improve the odds for everyone involved.
Anytime — but especially a time like this, in terms of both the crisis and the inspiring holiday — is a good time to be mindful of those who languish behind prison walls. Whatever their sentence, they’ve not been sentenced to death by virus and they don’t deserve it.