As of Friday morning, in the state of North Carolina, there were 5,859 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 72,981 completed tests, 152 deaths, 429 current hospitalizations, and 94 of the state's 100 counties had seen confirmed coronavirus cases. While we all continue to feel the effects of this global pandemic, our local food banks are relied upon now more than ever as food insecure families continue to face the question, "where is my next meal going to come from?" Our local food banks, like the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, can really use your help. Click here to locate your food bank, where you can find links to donate or volunteer, and also a 'Food Finder' which takes you to their website where you can find local community food pantries and other resources.
Looking for another way to help during the crisis? Consider a donation to Healing Transitions. Healing Transitions provides freedom from addiction through long-term recovery and dignity through a non-medical detox and long-term overnight emergency shelter to those in need. The COVID-19 outbreak has led to a decline in donations, both financially and in much-needed supplies, and Healing Transitions could really use your help. Detox facilities are licensed and are required to provide food that is individually packaged. Next time you make a trip to the grocery store and you see individually wrapped pretzels, chips, granola bars, juice boxes, and the like, consider picking up an extra box and dropping it by Healing Transitions at any time. Click here for more information on Healing Transitions and how you can help.
For more information on COVID-19 in North Carolina, click here to visit the Department of Health and Human Services website and be sure to stay up to date on the latest federal guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by clicking here.
With the entire state operating under a stay-at-home order through the end of the month, most North Carolinians are navigating a new normal, especially when it comes to working from home. North Carolina lawmakers' experience has been no different. Members of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 working groups continued with virtual meetings this week, shifting focus to what a proposed relief bill language may look like as it leaves committee and is prepared for filing when the General Assembly returns for the short session at the end of the month.
Legislative leadership has indicated that the legislature's regularly scheduled short session will continue as planned, reconvening April 28. However, the short session at the end of the month will look much different than sessions in the past. Senate leadership announced Wednesday that the General Assembly legislative building will be closed to the public starting April 20 through May 8, only allowing members, credentialed media, and select staff critical to the continued operations of the legislature to enter. Anyone entering the building will have their temperature checked upon entry. The announcement follows indications from House leadership that the April short session may look different, including longer amounts of time for members to cast floor months so that proper social distancing measures can be observed. When the legislature returns at the end of the month, lawmakers will likely remain in session for just a few days to take up critical coronavirus related bills. They will likely adjourn with the intent to return later in the summer to consider additional COVID-19 related legislation as well as other topics typically considered during the short session.
The entire state of North Carolina will continue to operate under Governor Roy Cooper's statewide stay-at-home order through April 29. The stay-at-home order, issued through Executive Order 121, directs all North Carolinians to remain in their homes unless they are performing essential services, taking care of someone, or running necessary errands. However, an additional executive order issued last week went into effect Monday at 5:00PM, putting further limitations on retail stores that remain open during this time. Executive Order 131 limits retail store capacity to 20% of the store's fire code limit, or five people per 1,000 square feet, whichever is fewer. The order also requires stores to keep up with frequent cleaning and disinfecting practices, placement at checkout and waiting lines marking six feet of distance between each individual mark, and encourages stores to display arrows or markings to guide shoppers up and down aisles through one-way lanes. The Governor's most recent executive order also places additional restrictions on gatherings in long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes.
In addition to the statewide stay-at-home order, local municipalities have issued their own stay-at-home orders for residents. Most counties and municipalities have followed Cyberstructure and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) federal guidelines within the order. Saturday, March 28, CISA released a second version of the federal guidance, updating the guidelines included in the Guidance on the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce: Ensuring Community and National Resilience in COVID-19 Response. The federal guidelines outline the qualifications for critical workers such as healthcare professionals, law enforcement personnel, public safety personnel, first responders, carry-out and food delivery workers, and others essential to maintain crucial public infrastructure. Additionally, each local order must operate under Governor Cooper's Executive Order 120 on mass gatherings and essential businesses.
This week, a handful of municipalities updated their orders, including Wake County, New Hanover County, the City of Wilmington, and the City of Winston-Salem. Wake County's updated order extends the county's stay-at-home order through April 30. The revised New Hanover County order states, among other changes, that retailers do not have to block off sections that have non-essential items for sale, as they were required to do previously. The City of Wilmington's updated order follows the changes made to the New Hanover County order. In Winston-Salem, Mayor J. Allen Joines extended the city's state of emergency stay-at-home order through May 7.
Counties and municipalities currently adhering to the updated version of CISA standards include Buncombe County and the City of Asheville (order), Cabarrus County (order), Carteret County (order), the City of Graham (order), the City of Durham and Durham County (revised order), Forsyth County (order), the City of Winston-Salem (revised order), Franklin County (order), Gaston County (order), Guilford County and the cities of Greensboro and High Point (revised order), Mecklenburg County and the City of Charlotte (revised order), Pitt County and the City of Greenville (order), the Town of Beaufort (order), Wake County and the City of Raleigh (order), and the Village of Clemmons (order).
Other county and municipal orders that currently do not follow the updated version of the CISA standards include Ashe County (order), Avery County (order), Burke County (order), Cherokee County (order), Columbus County (order), the City of Fayetteville (order), the City of Lexington (order), Dare County (restricted entry order), Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (order), Haywood County (order), Henderson County (order), Hyde County (order), Jackson County (order), Macon County (order), Madison County (PSA), New Hanover County (revised order), the City of Wilmington (revised order), Orange County and the City of Chapel Hill (order), Rutherford County (order), Polk County (order), Robeson County (order), Swain County (order), and the Town of Kernersville (revised order).
In the counties and municipalities with their own version of a stay-at-home order, the state determined that citizens should abide by whichever is the stricter of the two orders.
Small Business Support
The House Select Committee on COVID-19, Economic Support Working Group met Tuesday to discuss draft bill language designed to help small businesses stay afloat during the crisis. The bill is designed to mimic the $15 million bridge loan program set up by a coalition of the Golden LEAF Foundation and small business lenders including the Carolina Small Business Development Fund and the Rural Center earlier this month. The Small Business Emergency Loans legislation would provide $25 million of state money to the program to be administered by the Golden LEAF Foundation. Similar to the Foundation's original program, the bill would limit loans to businesses with 50 or fewer employees, would have to be repaid once the business receives federal assistance, and would be interest free for six months. The money would be returned to the legislature, back to the General Fund, once the loans are repaid, minus some administrative and loan serving costs. Program participants must be businesses operating within the state of North Carolina and have suffered economic losses due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The coalition's current bridge loan program has already received over 3,397 applications from the state's over 900,000 small businesses. Application requests have totaled over $121.5 million, with the average funding request coming in at about $35,700. Members of the committee were supportive of the drafted bill language, only raising concerns that the money allocated would not be enough to serve all of the small businesses in need. Rep. Jason Saine (R-Lincoln), co-chair of the committee, and House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) agreed that the initial $25 million may not be enough in the end, but that it was a good first step. Speaker Moore also stated that the level of funding could be increased once the legislature returns to session and lawmakers have a better understanding of what exactly their budget will look like. Speaker Moore noted that the key is to maximize the federal dollars the state is getting before expending more state dollars.
The Small Business Emergency Loans bill draft will be back before the committee for a vote during their meeting next week. The committee did vote to unanimously approve a bill draft that combines the language from the three bill drafts discussed during the committee's meeting last week. The only changes made to the COVID-19 Response Act - Economic Support draft matches the state's tax deadlines and extensions to those recently updated and outlined by the IRS. The Economic Support Working Group is scheduled to meet next week, Tuesday, April 21 at 10:00AM.
Members of the House Select Committee on COVID-19, Continuity of State Operations Working Group also met Tuesday to review a list of state agency and other organization requests that would require legislative action in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the social distancing requirements that are in place. The intent of the list put together by legislative staff and the committee meeting was to go over high-level requests the committee is being asked to consider. However, the majority of the committee sought more detailed explanations of each of the items being reviewed. Staff plans to contact the sources of the submitted requests in order to get a better idea of what each agency, department, or organization is looking to achieve through the request. Staff also continues to work on draft bill language to bring forward to the committee during their upcoming meetings so the Continuity of State Operations working group can be sure to have a bill ready for filing when the General Assembly reconvenes at the end of the month. The list of requests submitted to the committee for consideration include:
- A special provision request from the Office of the Secretary of State that would allow for either a notary or two witnesses to sign off on documents for advanced health care directives. The Secretary of State also asked the committee to consider waiving annual report fees of LLCs, corporations, among others, in an effort to help small businesses that are dealing with the economic downturn.
- The Department of Transportation has requested authority for the DMV Commissioner to extend expiration deadlines for things such as driver licenses, vehicle inspections, station licenses, etc., and to give the Commissioner the authority to waive fines and fees during the declared state of emergency.
- The State Board of Elections is requesting expanded delivery of absentee requests to include fax and email as well as allowing Help America Vote Act documents to be included with absentee request forms. These requests would only apply to the elections taking place during the declared state of emergency, not the November general election.
- The Secretary of State and the Register of Deeds submitted requests regarding notaries, largely surrounding the ability to conduct remote notarization either during declared states of emergency or more generally.
- A handful of organizations, including the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, the North Carolina League of Municipalities, and the Local Government Commission, requested clarity from the legislature on open meeting laws and the validity of remote participation. Currently, the statute states that officials must be physically present for the meeting to result in a quorum, bringing into question the validity of actions taken by local governments during virtual meetings.
The committee will meet again next week, Tuesday, April 21, at 2:00PM.
Health Care Requests
The House Select Committee on COVID-19, Health Care Working Group met this week to wrap up presentations to the committee and to review a list of potential policy and appropriations proposals. The co-chairs of the committee hope to put the requests presented to the committee this week together into two draft bills: one to address the policy changes that require legislative action and another to address funding needs. The goal is to have a draft of the bill language ready to come before the committee during their next meeting. Each working group is aiming to have a bill ready for filing when the General Assembly returns for the short session at the end of the month.
Committee members were largely in agreement on what actions need to be taken right now to help deal with the pandemic, and what may be able to wait until later in the summer to address. The requests discussed during the committee meeting that will likely be included in the draft bill language include:
- Telehealth parity and more uniform telehealth policies were a common request sent in to the committee. Requests included consistency across all payors in regard to telehealth polices to ensure equal treatment of patients during the emergency and to require all insurance providers, including Medicaid, continue to reimburse for telehealth services throughout the emergency period.
- A number of legislators and organizations asked lawmakers to use their full power and influence to expedite the production and distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) to all front line healthcare workers, and to and develop a state plan to stockpile additional PPE.
- Policy changes to expand the health care workforce were also requested, such as allowing medical students to graduate early, expediting the reciprocity of licensure from out of state providers, relaxing scope of practice requirements, and promoting the use of volunteer providers where possible.
- A handful of organizations and a bipartisan group of legislators requested Medicaid coverage temporarily be expanded, specifically to cover the cost of COVID-19 testing, all of which would be federally funded.
- The North Carolina Medical Society asked the committee to support the effort in Congress to include direct stimulus for physician and other health care providers’ practices. In North Carolina alone, the Medical Society estimates that there are about 8,000 independent practices that will need approximately $4 billion in stimulus money over the next six months to maintain their essential staff, facility rental, and supply purchases.
- $1.672 million was requested by North Carolina MedAssist to help with increased patient enrollment and prescriptions dispensed. The money would go towards prescription medication, additional staff, pharmacy postage and supply costs, and temporary associates to help fill the void volunteers have left due to social distancing requirements.
- A $6 million request to send funds to Feeding the Carolinas and the state farmer’s markets to ensure food banks are able to meet increased needs.
The full list of requests presented to committee members during the meeting can be found here. The Health Care Working Group will meet again next week, Thursday, April 23, to discuss proposed bill language.
The House Select Committee on COVID-19, Education Working Group met Thursday to discuss a first draft of the legislation that will be sent out of the committee. Thursday's meeting was for information only, but the working group plans to vote on the bill draft presented to the committee during their meeting next week. The draft bill, Education Omnibus/COVID-19, provides relief to K-12 schools and institutions of higher education in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
The proposed bill draft would outline various testing requirement waivers provided to assessments such as EOGs, EOCs, the ACT, and WorkKeys tests. The bill would also waive school report care requirements, the identification of a new low-performing school, and would waive the requirement to select a new school for the Innovative School District program. Waivers would also be granted for teacher notification of updated Education Value-Added Assessment System data, teacher effectiveness reporting, and teacher observation and evaluation requirements.
A series of modifications would be made for Educator Preparation Programs (EPPs) as well. Three minimum EPP admission requirements for the upcoming school year would be waived, including the preprofessional skills test requirement and the cohort GPA requirement of at least a 3.0. EPP clinical internship requirements. The State Board of Education would be prohibited from considering data that would not practically be available during the 2019-2020 school year when assigning sanctions to EPPs.
Lastly, the bill would provide a one-year extension for teachers to meet licensure examination requirements for continuing education, as well as a one-year extension for school administrators and other school personnel to meet their licensure examination requirements for licensure renewal. The working group is scheduled to meet again next week to review any final changes to the bill draft and wrap up their committee work for the time being.