Roy Cooper’s plan reopens too slowly

by John Hood

Raleigh, NC – At an April 23 news conference, Gov. Roy Cooper gave a reasonable explanation of what led him to institute North Carolina’s statewide stay-at-home order nearly a month earlier. His secretary of health and human services, Dr. Mandy Cohen, gave a reasonable explanation of the metrics the administration is tracking — and why a decline in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is not necessary to begin a phased reopening of North Carolina’s battered economy.

NC Governor Roy Cooper, at an April 24 COVID-19 briefing. (Pool photo)

Unfortunately, the phase-in plan Cooper announced at the press conference isn’t reasonable. It is too slow, rigid, and draconian.

To put it bluntly, the plan is wholly inadequate to the moment we face — a moment of crisis for hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians and a moment of painful sacrifice for millions more.

At tremendous cost in liberties and livelihoods, they have complied with government dictates originally justified to “flatten the curve” so that surging demand for hospital beds and intensive care did not outstrip capacity. Initial projections of the need for COVID-19 hospitalizations were exaggerated, however — this has been admitted by the modelers themselves — so the need for hospitalization in North Carolina has stayed far, far below capacity.

Did stay-at-home orders help to flatten that curve? Almost certainly. But the curve was going to be flatter than originally projected, anyway. In fairness, that is not something Cooper and other governors could have counted on a month ago. It is the kind of updated information that should be informing their decisions today.

Another is that North Carolina’s COVID-19 cases, like those in other states, are not equally distributed. There are large swaths of our state where there are relatively few confirmed cases and deaths, where businesses and workplaces have been shut down for weeks while hospitals remained largely vacant.

The Cooper administration cited testing metrics from the Trump administration’s reopening guidance to show that North Carolina does not yet meet the threshold to proceed to Phase 1. That is correct, essentially because the state’s share of COVID-19 tests coming back positive stayed roughly the same rather than declining over the past two weeks.

Even if you consider that federal guidance still reasonable, given new information about the base prevalence of the disease (which appears to be at least 10 to 15 times greater than the number of confirmed cases) and its actual fatality rate (which is far lower than originally announced and highly stratified by age), North Carolina may well meet the criteria by the time our extended stay-at-home order expires on May 8.

But this is where Cooper’s plan gets really unreasonable. It employs the federal guidance only selectively. During their Phase 1, North Carolinians will largely remain under a stay-at-home order, until late May at the earliest. A few more stores will be open, as well as parks.

The federal guidance for Phase 1 is far more expansive. Elective surgeries at hospitals could resume. Establishments such as workplaces, gyms, churches, ballparks, arenas, movie theaters, and even restaurants could reopen, subject to capacity limits and other social distancing rules. Cooper’s plan also spaces out Phases 2 and 3 more than the federal guidance specifies, delaying our state’s reopening well into the summer.

And most unreasonably of all, the governor makes no distinctions among North Carolina’s very different communities. Just as it would be unreasonable to apply the same level of restriction simultaneously to New York and New Mexico, it is unreasonable to treat Durham County the same as Duplin County, which has no reported deaths and fewer than half the number of confirmed cases per capita.

If you give North Carolinians a binary choice — lift all restrictions immediately or keep most of them in place for another month or two — most will opt for the latter option. But those are not the only choices. There is a middle course, a phased reopening that starts within days and gets people back to work while keeping hospitals from being overcrowded.

That’s the reasonable choice. Alas, Gov. Cooper did not make it.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.