Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:

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May 20

The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer on Gov. Roy Cooper's reopening plans for North Carolina:

Gov. Roy Cooper is poised to give North Carolina its economic freedom, but with that comes much more.

Cooper is expected to announce that the state will move to Phase 2 of the reopening schedule he set out last month. That likely will mean North Carolina restaurants and bars can operate at 50 percent capacity, the News & Observer reports. It also would allow limited opening of fitness centers, hair salons and other personal care services.

It’s a politically sound and economically sensible decision for the governor. As for public health? Like so much with COVID-19, there’s no way to know if moving to Phase 2 is a safe step or a leap too soon.

This much is certain: It’s up to North Carolinians now. The governor’s decision was not only about trying to revive a staggering economy. It was about shifting the responsibility of COVID-19 from the government to the people it serves.

That’s a politically sound path to take. While Cooper was in the mainstream when he first announced coronavirus restrictions, he’s been among the slowest to move his state out. That caution was warranted, but it’s led to a steady drip of complaints from Republican leaders, as well as impatience among business owners and fatigue from people who understand caution but want to make their own decisions about their lives. With COVID-19 numbers mostly leveling out or declining, it was time — politically and economically — to let that happen.

The decision also fits the ideological sensibilities of his state, which has long bristled at the heavy hand of government. While people overwhelmingly understood the need for initial measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, there was growing resistance to one-size-fits-all restrictions. North Carolinians wanted choice.

What will that choice look like? If you’re among a vulnerable population or live in a COVID-19 hot spot or just think the inside of a restaurant is still too risky, you can continue to avoid all the things the governor forbid until now. If you’re ready to mingle with the masses, you can do so — we hope at a safe social distance.

With that comes risk. Most businesses and retail stores will take measures to protect employees and customers, as thoughtful owners and managers always have. But some stores and companies will not. When businesses are left to their own devices, they sometimes cut corners and skirt the rules, because no one will get hurt.

That could be catastrophic with COVID-19, resulting in an infection regression that risks public health and economic damage. Cooper and county officials need to be vigilant about coronavirus violators, including restaurants and bars that decide to ignore the governor’s 50-percent capacity rules.

Cooper also needs to be ready to be wrong about Phase 2. If a new COVID-19 spike follows in parts of North Carolina, he’ll be faced with the exceedingly hard call to move backward, not forward, with the reopening. We hope that doesn’t happen, but states like Texas and Georgia hinted at a potential new COVID-19 surge a couple of weeks after making moves to reopen their economies. It’s too early to know what reopening means in those states and ours, but the governor can’t say there weren’t warning signs.

For now, however, North Carolina is getting the freedom many wanted. Our health – and our economy – are in our own hands now.

Online: https://www.newsobserver.com

Online: https://www.charlotteobserver.com

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May 19

The Winston-Salem Journal on the investigation into Sen. Richard Burr's stock sales:

Things do not look good for Sen. Richard Burr.

Last week, the FBI seized Burr’s cellphone as part of the Justice Department’s investigation into whether he and his wife, Brooke, sold stocks worth about $1 million using insider information he gained during congressional briefings about coronavirus in January.

Burr says his stock sales were solely guided by public media reports about the deadly virus. He requested a Senate Ethics Committee review of his conduct.

But critics have noted that his stock strategy changed for the sales in question.

Burr’s brother-in-law also sold stocks valued at between $97,006 and $280,000 on the same day Burr sold his stocks. None of the stocks overlapped; just the timing, which seems suspicious.

The seizing of his cellphone is significant. “This is not something the FBI or DOJ does lightly,” Preet Bharara, a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, tweeted on May 13. “It requires layers of review, the blessing of a judge, and consideration of severe reputational harm to a sitting US Senator.”

On May 14, Burr resigned his chairmanship of the high-profile Intelligence Committee. (Committee member Sen. Marco Rubio, (R-Fla.), has been tapped to replace him.) Considering that the committee has oversight responsibilities for the organization investigating him, it was the right move. We’re glad that he recognizes this.

On top of the criminal allegations, Burr has been criticized for giving a speech to a private group on Feb. 27 in which he warned that the coronavirus would have a “dire effect” on the economy and population — even though he’d been giving a rosier assessment to the general public, including in an op-ed for Fox News. Downplaying the deadly pandemic when he knew better was dishonest — and dangerous.

“I don’t believe he did anything criminally wrong, maybe used poor judgment, I guess,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C.) said following the initial allegations. “The bottom line is, let’s just see how this turns out. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Richard Burr.”

But other Republicans feel differently, including Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, who slammed Burr for “screwing all Americans by falsely reassuring us … while he dumped his stock portfolio early.”

Nobody is happy about this. Burr, a resident of Winston-Salem and a graduate of Wake Forest University, is well-liked by Republicans and Democrats alike, some of whom have known him for some time. We’ve seen no signs of crass celebration over his misfortune. But thinking that Burr lied to his constituents and used his insider knowledge for monetary gain has left many feeling betrayed and angry.

This being 2020, there is, of course, a conspiracy theory developing; some claim that Burr is being targeted by President Trump’s weaponized DOJ because his Intelligence Committee has stood firm on its conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to benefit Trump — a conclusion that Trump allies like Gaetz would certainly like to undermine.

Such a plot would make a good thriller, but it’s doubtful that Trump’s administration has the level of sophistication required to pull it off. But if any evidence materializes to support it, this would surely be a serious betrayal of the public trust and the consequences should be severe.

Even if the investigation produces no criminal charges, Burr’s reputation is likely damaged beyond repair. To see his career ending this way is just sad.

Online: https://www.journalnow.com

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May 18

The Fayetteville Observer on a lawsuit challenging the state's restrictions on church services amid the pandemic:

A federal judge agrees: The church folks were right.

Several religious leaders filed a lawsuit last week against Gov. Roy Cooper over his coronavirus restrictions that limited churches from holding meetings of more than 10 people inside their buildings. His order allows outside worship in greater numbers.

But lawyers for the religious leaders want indoor worship and argued that churches should at least be allowed the same loosened restrictions that “non-essential” businesses received during Phase 1 of the state’s reopening. That allows for the businesses to open up as long as they stay below 50 percent capacity and implement social distancing guidelines to help stop the spread of the virus.

Judge James C. Dever III found their argument credible writing, “the Governor appears to trust citizens to perform non-religious activities indoors (such as shopping or working or selling merchandise) but does not trust them to do the same when they worship together indoors,” according to a story on the judge’s decision by the Raleigh newspaper.

On May 16, Dever handed the plaintiffs a broad victory, issuing a temporary restraining order on Cooper’s order. It meant churches could move back into their buildings immediately on the assumption they would likely win on their claims at a hearing set for May 29.

Cooper’s team appeared to concede that fact. His spokesperson said later on the governor would not appeal the ruling, which is filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina Eastern Division.

In the end, we believe the religious leaders’ legal argument seemed hard to argue with. This is particularly true when one considers that the free exercise of religion is protected in the Constitution.

As Judge Dever wrote: “There is no pandemic exception to the Constitution of the United States or the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.”

But even with this legal victory, every individual congregation should carefully weigh if going back into the sanctuary is its most wise move.

North Carolina has met certain benchmarks in containing the novel coronavirus but the disease is not defeated. The same day of the ruling, the state saw its biggest rise in positive tests for COVID-19, an increase of 853 cases over May 15. This is partly due to more testing. But the overall numbers are still sobering — as of the morning of May 18, the state has more than 18,600 infections and is pushing toward 700 deaths.

Most church memberships are aging, especially in mainline denominations. They have a population that is more at-risk for the worst effects of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. These include being 65 or older, or having one of numerous chronic conditions including diabetes, obesity, chronic heart or lung disease, or being immuno-compromised. In North Carolina 51 percent of people fall into the at-risk category, according to the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services. In many churches, the percentage is likely higher.

These factors will be of particular concern for church bodies with a majority or a high percentage of African-Americans, who have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus. The Church of God in Christ, the largest black Pentecostal denomination, has already lost as many as 30 bishops and church leaders to COVID-19, according to a story last month in The Washington Post.

Then too, the communal features of church – the kinds of activities that can make a worship experience so inviting – could be the riskiest when it comes to the virus’ spread. They include singing in the choir, serving of communion, praying out loud together or collecting the offering.

As with businesses that re-opened, pastors and their flocks that move back inside should be meticulous and thoughtful in how they maintain social distance. The last thing for which any church leader wants to be responsible is losing members to this virus – these worshipers who seek out church as a safe sanctuary from everything going on in the world, including the pandemic.

Online: https://www.fayobserver.com