NC Senate passes ‘proactive’ bill that could reopen bars and gyms

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North Carolina senators passed a bill Tuesday that would allow gyms, health clubs and fitness centers to reopen at 50% capacity. House Bill 594, sponsored by Sen. Rick Gunn, would also allow bars to reopen and restaurants to double their capacity. The bill is Gunn’s second attempt to overturn part […]

North Carolina senators passed a bill Tuesday that would allow gyms, health clubs and fitness centers to reopen at 50% capacity. House Bill 594, sponsored by Sen. Rick Gunn, would also allow bars to reopen and restaurants to double their capacity.

The bill is Gunn’s second attempt to overturn part of Gov. Roy Cooper’s current coronavirus executive order.

“To me, instead of trying to be reactive… I decided that, you know, somebody’s got to start being proactive,” Gunn, a Republican from Burlington, said in a news conference Monday. “I’m doing this for small business because it’s been my lifelong passion.”

His first attempt, a bill that would have also reopened bars and doubled restaurant capacity, was vetoed by Cooper Friday.

Gunn said Monday that he was updating HB 594, which originally only included gyms, health clubs and fitness centers, to include provisions for bars and restaurants, too.

Gunn introduced an amendment on the Senate floor Tuesday that would allow Cooper to close businesses again if a spike in coronavirus cases occurs. That failsafe would require concurrence from the rest of the Council of State, however.

“I have looked for a compromise to give the governor what he asked for, which was to have some flexibility if we have another COVID strike,” Gunn said when he introduced the amendment Tuesday.

Democrats said that the amendment, which they called a “safety switch,” wasn’t enough, and pointed out that the Council of State is majority Republican. Six Republicans and four Democrats — including Cooper— sit on the Council of state.

“I don’t know if these bills are perfect, but the reason we are passing them is,” Gunn said in a heated debate on the Senate floor Tuesday. “This is not a partisan bill.”

The Senate passed the bill with a vote split mostly along party lines. The bill will go to the House, and then if passed, to the governor’s desk.

Changing the rules for restaurants and bars

When Cooper announced his Phase Two guidelines, which are set to last until the end of June, bars were not allowed to reopen, but restaurants, wineries, breweries and distilleries were.

HB 536 would have changed that. The bill would have allowed a restaurant to seat 50% of its capacity outside, in addition to the 50% allowed inside under Phase Two. The bill also would have allowed a bar to reopen and serve 50% of its customer capacity outdoors.

“State and local government leaders must be able to act quickly during the COVID-19 emergency to prevent a surge in cases that could overwhelm hospitals and harm the public,” Cooper said when he vetoed the bill Friday. “House Bill 536 would limit the ability of leaders to respond quickly to COVID-19 and hamper the health and safety of every North Carolinian.”

The House will vote to override Cooper’s veto Wednesday. Both Republican-controlled chambers need a three-fifths vote for an override.

HB 536 passed 42-5 in the Senate. But the vote in the House was split more along party lines, 65-53, signaling it might be difficult for the legislature to override the veto.

Nearly 200 bar owners have also filed a lawsuit against the governor to reopen bars, The News & Observer previously reported.

Gyms, health clubs and fitness facilities

In addition to provisions allowing restaurants and bars to serve more customers, HB 594 would allow gyms, yoga studios and other fitness facilities to reopen at 50% capacity. The capacity limits count only members, not employees.

Employees would be required to get their temperature taken daily and wear masks unless they’re leading a fitness class with social distancing. Temperature checks would not be required for gym customers, but gym members will be strongly encouraged to wear masks.

Gyms would also be required to have contactless check-in procedures, implement social distancing, provide disinfectants throughout the facilities and limit water fountains for only filling water bottles.

Gym owners told legislators in a committee hearing Monday that this bill increases the likelihood that they will “make it out of this.” They also said they would be able to put everything required in the bill into practice.

“We can use common sense and reason along with the guidelines included in HB 594 to operate safely and serve our members,” said Joseph Ogburn of Triangle CrossFit.

Tentative plans for Phase Two indicated that gyms, like bars, would reopen. But when Cooper announced the guidelines for the second phase, which began May 22, he took a more “modest” approach, which did not include reopening gyms.

Days after the announcement, a group of gyms filed a lawsuit, The News & Observer previously reported.

Cooper spokeswoman Dory MacMillan said last week in response to the bill that “the governor and state health officials have laid out criteria for lifting restrictions to bolster our economy while protecting the health of North Carolinians. Gov. Cooper will continue to follow the data, and work with the private sector to move forward,” The News & Observer previously reported.

NC Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen previously said keeping gyms closed in Phase Two isn’t “a sweat thing, it’s an exertion and breathing issue.” She has also said it’s hard to keep gym users socially distanced.

For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Domecast politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it on Megaphone, Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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