Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:
The Greensboro News & Record on the coronavirus pandemic:
One year and one day after COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic, a federal mass vaccination center opened at Greensboro’s Four Seasons Town Centre.
The FEMA facility, which represents a coup for Guilford County and the Triad, can vaccinate up to 3,000 persons per day, seven days a week. It is one of only 18 such centers nationwide.
Less than 24 hours later, Duke withdrew from the Men’s ACC Basketball Tournament in Greensboro and ended its season after a positive coronavirus test surfaced in the Blue Devil program.
Only hours after that, N.C. A&T withdrew from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament after a positive test in the Aggie program.
And on Friday morning, defending national champion Virginia withdrew for similar reasons from the ACC Tournament, which was being played, incidentally, next door to a vaccination clinic.
In the greater scheme of things, it’s only sports, but each of these setbacks bears testament to the sticky resilience of the virus.
Over the last 12 months, we’ve been forced to grow accustomed to these vexing good news-bad news cycles. Always waiting, it seems, for the other sneaker to drop.
Masks became both a necessary precaution and a flashpoint for political debates.
Movie theaters and concert halls went dark.
The economy teetered under the weight of necessary but painful public-safety restrictions.
For some, work “at the ofﬁce” meant a spare room or kitchen table. For others, sadly, there suddenly was no work at all.
And that most basic of human needs, to touch, became largely discouraged.
Meanwhile, a bitter war erupted between science and myth.
Not believing news reports, medical experts and, in some cases, their own eyes, some Americans insisted (and still do) that the pandemic is much ado about nothing.
The skeptic in chief, Donald Trump, defiantly held largely maskless public and private events that spread the virus. In fact, he became infected himself.
Yet, the fact is, COVID-19 is all too real, especially for people of color, who are disproportionately affected by the virus, which exposed social and racial divides that already were lurking in the shadows.
And we’ve lost so many friends, relatives, co-workers and loved ones.
On March 11, 2020, when World Health Organization officials declared that they were “deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction” toward SARS-CoV-2, at least 31 Americans had lost their lives to the virus.
As of last week, more than a half a million had died.
What have we learned in 12 months?
We’ve learned that we need each other, in person, for warmth and comfort and friendship, and that a square on a computer screen is no substitute for an embrace.
We’ve learned that we truly are our brother’s and our sister’s keeper — that our actions, or lack thereof — can affect, and, indeed, hurt others.
We’ve learned that the creaky underpinnings of our health care system are deeply flawed and in need of an overhaul.
We’ve learned that, for all of the promise of distance learning, our children need in-person instruction.
We’ve learned not only a better appreciation of first responders and health care workers, but of others whose essential roles we took for granted: teachers, grocery store and sanitation workers, truck drivers, and so many more.
We’ve learned that America is not, by its might and prosperity, magically insulated from the rest of the world — that a pandemic neither sees nor respects national borders.
We learned that health experts should be heeded and not muzzled during a health crisis. They’re not always and sometimes they may disagree among themselves, but they help our leaders make more informed decisions and they can help debunk dangerous misinformation.
We’ve learned knowledge evolves on a new threat like COVID … as in first, “Don’t wear a mask,” then “Do,” and then ”Wear two.” It would help if experts qualified their advice with, “Based on what we know now … .”:
We’ve learned that there is a price for politicizing a public health crisis — and that it has cost us lives that might have been saved.
And we hope we’ve learned the value of patience — that as we are making progress with vaccines and some reopenings, we have to remain cautious and careful.
As for a united front against a common threat, that vision still seems distant.
A COVID-19 relief package passed last week in Congress without a single Republican vote.
Some complained that it was too costly and that the bill devoted only a fraction of its $1.9 trillion price tag on actual health issues. But that ignores the massive economic carnage that COVID has wrought.
In one sign of progress, Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican leaders agreed last week on a reasonable compromise for reopening schools in North Carolina that allows more flexibility for local school systems.
It had always been clear that both sides wanted the same thing but, as usual, politics got in the way.
The compromise was positive proof that we can disagree without being destructive or endangering the common good.
We know it’s a tall order, but in the year ahead, we’d love to see more leadership like this.
Let that be the next condition that goes viral, in North Carolina … and beyond.
The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer on releasing inmates early due to overcrowding during the pandemic:
It’s an agreement that could unnerve the public. To settle a lawsuit over crowded prison conditions during the pandemic, the state of North Carolina has agreed to the early release of 3,500 prison inmates during the next six months.
Republican state lawmakers have picked up on that concern. They have twice summoned Department of Public Safety (DPS) officials before the Joint Appropriations Committee on Justice and Public Safety to ask how many offenders convicted of violent crimes will get out early.
It’s an inviting issue for Republicans already doubtful about the need for pandemic-related restrictions on businesses and the public. Now they see the risk of contracting COVID-19 being cited as a grounds for a mass release of prisoners.
Republicans are also skeptical about whether politics played into the agreement reached by the office of Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat, and the advocacy groups that sued, including the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union. It could be a replay of last fall’s conflict when Republicans challenged a settlement the attorney general reached with advocacy groups seeking to ease voting rules during the pandemic.
A closer look at the settlement reveals it to be a sensible response to a legal claim that keeping prisoners in crowded conditions during a pandemic constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Wake Superior Court Judge Vinston Rozier, Jr. found that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail and issued a preliminary injunction. If the case were allowed to go to trial, the state could be compelled to release a greater number of prisoners, the decision on who to release could be taken over by the court and the state could face further legal claims.
In addition to being a practical settlement, it’s the right thing to do. All of those likely to be released early will remain under state supervision in the community. Many of them are nonviolent offenders incarcerated for crimes related to mental illness or drug addiction. In an ideal world, such offenders would have been diverted from the prison system in the first place. Keeping them in prison where there is a high risk of infection with a potentially deadly disease could be found to be unconstitutional punishment.
DPS officials and state attorneys appeared for a second time at a meeting of Tuesday the Joint Appropriations Committee on Justice and Public Safety where they clarified whether offenders convicted of violent crimes would be released early under the settlement. The answer is yes, but they did not know how many. They did say that early release of those prisoners would be limited to those already up for release this year. Those offenders’ release dates could be moved up if they qualify for good behavior credits.
While the early release of 3,500 prisoners sounds like a lot, it is modest in the context of the state’s prison population trends. In the last decade, the population has dropped from just more than 40,000 to 28,500. Since the pandemic started in North Carolina, the population has been reduced by 6,000 inmates.
Eddie Caldwell, spokesman for the N.C. Sheriffs Association, said his organization has been monitoring the legislative meetings “to determine whether any of the inmates being released will jeopardize public safety” but who those inmates will be has not been decided.
Caldwell said only a study that examines rearrests among those released early could determine whether pandemic-driven reductions in jail and prison populations are leading to more crime. It would take an academic and statistical analysis for anybody to have an opinion on it one way or another,” he said.
Fortunately, the pandemic has accelerated the process of assessing how many inmates really need to be in prison or could be diverted to drug treatment programs, mental health care and supervision in the community. Even as the state’s prison population has declined, there is more that can be done to help and reform offenders and save taxpayers the cost of running more prisons than needed for public safety.
A 2018 ACLU report estimated that North Carolina could cut its jail and prison population by half over several years and save more than $1 billion by using alternatives to prison and releasing elderly prisoners. Cutting it by 3,500 to spare prisoners, prison staff and their families from COVID infections is a modest, humane and reasonable step.
The Winston-Salem Journal on Dr. Seuss and a local reading event:
We sympathize with Winston-Salem parks and recreation officials who just wanted to do something fun for residents — something that would take everyone’s minds off the pandemic and help them celebrate the arrival of glorious spring.
So they organized the “Dr. Seuss Drive-In Car Decorating Contest,” to be held Saturday at Parkland Park. Along with gussied-up cars, the event would include games, crafts, a storytime reading and a book giveaway for kids. A good time would be had by all.
Unfortunately, bad timing threw the whole event into an unexpected controversy. Despite his demise in 1991, Theodor Seuss Geisel — better known by his pen name, Dr. Seuss — is embroiled in American political culture wars.
After the city’s Facebook page blew up with comments, the city wisely opted to convert the event into a “non Dr. Seuss event,” the Winston-Salem Journal’s Wesley Young reported this week. The new name: “Spring into Reading.”
“Although there are varying opinions on this matter, the Dr. Seuss event planned for this weekend is being converted into a different activity that will support City of Winston-Salem’s Recreation and Parks Department’s commitment to improving literacy in our community,” city spokesperson William Royston said in a statement. “The focus of the program is to continue to encourage and support the love of reading by youth.”
We’re glad the city didn’t just cancel the whole event.
There are legitimate complaints about the content of some of Dr. Seuss’ works, produced in a less enlightened time. Some of his drawings and phrases repeat ignorant and hurtful stereotypes.
But much of his work is simply wholesome — and inclusive, teaching morally sound lessons about acceptance and regard for the environment. Millions of American families of all backgrounds have benefited from reading Dr. Seuss.
So why the controversy?
It all began when Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the private company that publishes Seuss’ works, decided to drop six titles that “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” It was a low-key decision that likely wouldn’t have received much attention if Republican legislators weren’t trolling for offense to feed their claims of liberal “cancel culture.”
But while some liberals may have found Dr. Seuss unpalatable, the deletion of the questionable titles wasn’t the result of a liberal protest. It was a business decision made by a private company — ultimately a marketing decision to help sell books.
In other words, the decision was a product of the free market — to which Republicans generally genuflect.
Officials like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy were quick to post themselves online with their copies of “The Cat in the Hat” and “Green Eggs and Ham” — well-worn, we’re sure — while assiduously avoiding the actual controversial titles, which include “And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” and “If I Ran the Zoo.” They know that would be indefensible.
But liberals were quick to take the bait and now we don’t know how many fish there were to start with.
Of course, opinions vary, and always will. In the best of all possible worlds, people with concerns would be able to voice them calmly to respectful audiences who would listen carefully and weigh the claims. Maybe with some generosity and understanding, we could reach consensus now and then.
But instead, too many incidents are turned, by one party or another, into a knee-jerk, social media-generated public battle. It’s tiresome. Does everything have to be political?
We’ll have more to say about so-called “cancel culture” in the future. But for now, we’ll just say that there are quite a few legitimate issues before the American people without more being generated simply for political gain.
Or, to put it more simply yet:
I do not like your culture war
This silliness has gone too far
I want to decorate my car
With streamers and a giant star
Come to the party Saturday
We’ll read and sing and snack and play
But if you’d rather just be bitter
Then stay at home and post to Twitter.