North Carolina General Assembly Week in Review - September 2020 #2

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As North Carolina wraps up its second week of operating under Phase 2.5 of reopening and easing restrictions, Governor Roy Cooper and his Coronavirus Task Force reported a stabilization, and even decline, in the state's key virus trends. With the state's numbers heading in the right direction, gyms and fitness facilities, museums and aquariums, playgrounds, and restaurants, have all been able to reopen, with limited capacity, successfully. The state will continue to operate under Phase 2.5 of reopening, established through Executive Order 163, until October 2 at 5:00PM.

As of Thursday morning, in the state of North Carolina, there were 189,576 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, 2,714,175 completed tests, 3,180 deaths, and 894 current hospitalizations. As we all continue to feel the effects of the global pandemic and adjust to a new normal, we want to highlight a few ways our clients across North Carolina have worked to support residents and make this time a little easier for those throughout the state. Read more about what our clients are doing to help by clicking here.

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.


Elections Roundup

With just 46 days until Election Day, McGuireWoods Consulting is bringing you a comprehensive 2020 election website - your one-stop resource for this year's presidential, congressional, gubernatorial, attorneys general, and state legislative races. Complete with concise information about how elections are shaping up around the country - including snapshots of primary results and hot-button ballot initiatives - our site provides a landscape view of our nation's political scene and insights on potential shifts in the tide. Click here to visit MWC's 2020 election website. 

Interested in even more election insight? Join members of our MWC team from across the country in our upcoming webinars. Click here to register for our Employee Voter Engagement event Thursday, September 24 at 1:30 pm EST and here to register for our webinar, Election Insights: Gubernatorial, Attorneys General and State Legislative Races, Thursday, October 1 at 1:00 pm EST. Did you miss this week's webinar, Election Insights: Presidential, U.S. House and Senate Races? Check out what our panelists had to say by clicking here


School Returns

Since Governor Cooper’s July 14 announcement that schools would be allowed to reopen this fall under “Plan B," a hybrid of in-person instruction and virtual learning, a majority of the state’s school systems opted to begin the school year under “Plan C," a remote-only instruction plan. Most school systems left the end-date for plan C operations open-ended with plans to revisit the situation periodically and to make a decision based on the trends of their schools surrounding area. Since the start of the school year, many teachers, parents, and students have had mixed reviews of how virtual learning is going. This week, many of the state’s top Republican leaders came together to renew their push for full in-person instruction for all students throughout the state.

Lieutenant Governor and gubernatorial candidate Dan Forest, Senate President Pro Temp Phil Berger (R-Rockingham), Republican candidate for state superintendent Catherine Truitt, along with several parents, pushed for Gov. Cooper to allow school districts to reopen under “Plan A," which is full in-person instruction, during a press conference Wednesday. Sen. Berger argued that while some students may be adjusting to remote instruction well, others may be struggling, and that the mental and emotional well-being of students is at risk when they are forced to learn from home. Lt. Gov. Forest stated that if North Carolinians were to elect him as governor in November, schools would be open under "Plan A" throughout the state.

Many of the state’s Democratic leaders, as well as other parents, students, and teachers, pushed back against the statements made during the press conference, arguing that school districts are approaching the situation cautiously with the understanding that many teachers and faculty are not comfortable returning to the classroom and that many families worry about continued virus risks.

During Thursday’s COVID-19 news conference, Governor Cooper announced that public elementary schools will be allowed to choose to operate under Plan A. This will only apply to students in grades K-5, while grades 6-12 must continue to operate under either plan B or C. The plan A option also comes with safety protocols schools must follow, such as everyone in the school building being required to wear a mask and maintain social distancing, however, plan A does not require a reduction in the number of students allowed in the school building. Governor Cooper acknowledged that this option may not be right for all schools or school districts at this time and emphasized the need to keep remote learning options available for districts and students who choose to use them. Districts choosing to move to plan A cannot do so until October 5 at the earliest in order to allow districts time to work out proper safety measures and transportation.

Prior to the Governor’s announcement Thursday, two of the state’s largest school districts discussed their potential reopening plans. The Wake County school board met earlier this week to discuss their options of bringing students back into the classroom. Since announcing that schools would begin the year completely online, Wake County schools have been looking to bring students back to in-person instruction using three-week rotations, two weeks of virtual learning and one week of in-person instruction, to help limit the number of students and faculty in the school buildings. The school board is also considering a two-week rotation, one week of in-person instruction followed by one week of remote instruction, as well as potentially bringing back some students for in-person instruction every day, while students in other grades continue with virtual learning. Wake County’s goal is to have schools open for some form of in-person learning by October 26. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools also decided this week that they would start bringing students back into their buildings for in-person instruction next month. The school board voted, 6-3, to approve their reopening plan, allowing students back into the classroom under plan B mid-October.


Small Business Loans

Earlier this month, when lawmakers returned to Raleigh to pass HB 1105: Coronavirus Relief Act 3.0, their third coronavirus relief package, the legislature appropriated an additional $75 million to help small businesses throughout the state. The Rapid Recovery Loan Program, which received $15 million from lawmakers at the start of the pandemic, is run in partnership with the Golden LEAF Foundation, the North Carolina Rural Center, and lending partners such as Carolina Small Business Development Fund, Natural Capital Investment Fund, and Thread Capital, along with a handful of others. 

According to the most recent data, 8,935 applications have been submitted, 1,062 applications have been approved, and a total of $37,005,775 in loans have been approved, with the average loan amount at about $34,845. With the loan program's application deadline of October 15 fast approaching, and nearly $53 million in state appropriated funds remaining, the program's partners are hoping some changes to their loan terms will entice more small business to apply.

Businesses can now apply for loans up to $250,000, will have 18 months of no payments at 0.25% interest, and have up to eight years and six months of principal and interest payments at 5.5% interest. Some of the original loan terms still apply, such as loan amounts being equal to about two months or more of losses due to COVID-19, and current revenue and only businesses that began operations before March 23, 2020 are eligible. Any money that the program has left over at the end of the year must be returned to the federal government. 


Absentee Ballots

Just two weeks ago, North Carolina became the first state to mail out absentee ballots for the November election. When the North Carolina State Board of Elections (SBE) sent out the first round of absentee ballots, they received almost 15 times the amount of requests as they did at the same point in time four years ago during the 2016 election. The SBE reported 688,980 requests at that time, but now, more than 813,000 ballots have been requested. Of those ballots requested, almost 47,000 have already been filled out and mailed back in by voters. Lawmakers attempted to ease some mail-in absentee ballot requirements during the pandemic through the passage of HB 1169: Bipartisan Elections Act of 2020. Among the provisions in the bill, the legislature reduced the witness signature requirement to one instead of two. Even with the change, SBE officials are reporting that the biggest problem they are seeing with the ballots mailed in thus far surrounds the witness section on the outside of the envelope.

Officials are finding that spaces are either being left blank or the witness signatures are illegible, resulting in an incomplete ballot. This issue can be fixed one of two ways: voters may be issued a new ballot or the voter may fill out an affidavit. SBE officials are required to contact any voter if there is an issue with their ballot, giving North Carolinians a chance to fix their ballot so their vote is still counted prior to Election Day.

Election officials suggest reading all of the instructions on your ballot carefully and using the state's ballot tracking website to track your ballot once it is in the mail. To request an absentee ballot, voters can use the state's new absentee ballot request portal. The last day to request a ballot is Tuesday, October 27. For more information on how to register or how to vote in North Carolina, click here or here for national registration and voting information. 


Upcoming Legislative Meetings

Monday, September 21

1:00PM House: Select Committee on Strategic Transportation Planning and Long Term Funding Solutions

Tuesday, September 22

10:00AM: Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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