The governor gives North Carolina a final warning on COVID-19

the Editorial Board
·3 min read

You’ve probably seen the memes about North Carolina’s governor and COVID-19. There’s the one with Roy Cooper tactical squads knocking down doors to storm a Thanksgiving celebration. There’s another with Cooper’s face and a holiday tree. “He sees you when you’re drinking.” it says.

It’s a new take on an old COVID-19 complaint - that our governor is getting in our business, both literally and figuratively, with restrictions.

Cooper may have had those grumblers in mind Monday when he announced new guidelines for mask wearing and enforcement — but no new major restrictions — at a virtual COVID-19 news conference. The measures were less severe than governors in other states have levied in the wake of recent COVID surges across the country. Cooper, however, did have a warning for North Carolina:

“We are in danger,” he said.

He’s right. North Carolina’s COVID-19 metrics are rising at alarming rates, including hospitalizations and percentage of positive tests, which moved back above the important 5% threshold. It’s why this board said last week that Cooper should be more aggressive with protective measures, as governors near and far have in the face of COVID surges.

We still believe Cooper should get ahead of the virus, but we understand why he’s waiting at least a little longer to do so. Hospital capacity is tightening but still stable, and the governor is likely reluctant to place new burdens on struggling businesses before he absolutely has to. For now, he has settled on a new nudge on masks. Residents will now have to wear them at home when friends visit, as well at work, in the gym, at stores and in schools. Businesses, meanwhile, will be required to enforce mask mandates.

Notably, Cooper also invited Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan to the news conference and lauded her for her leadership that includes an emergency declaration penalizing businesses for not enforcing safety measures. It’s a message that Cooper doesn’t want the burden of COVID behavior to fall solely on him and his Department of Health and Human Services. If more local governments and individuals take protective measures on masks and Thanksgiving gatherings, the state might be able to avoid Cooper levying restrictions down the road.

Make no mistake: behavior matters. Several of North Carolina’s red and rural counties, where resistance to COVID-19 measures has been strongest, are experiencing a different kind of red — “critical community spread” on North Carolina’s new county alert COVID-19 map. Urban counties like Mecklenburg and Wake, which bowed to restrictions earlier, are largely in lesser stages of COVID urgency. Vigilance will be critical for all in the days ahead as colder weather pushes people inside. “The coming weeks will be a true test of our resolve to do what it takes to keep people from getting sick,” said DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen.

That message, however, might fail to reach coronavirus skeptics, regardless of the surge that’s headed North Carolina’s way. Led by the president, they continue to scoff at the danger from COVID-19 or point to advances in care that make the virus less lethal. But as a Washington Post report noted Tuesday, the fatality rate of COVID-19 hasn’t improved since August despite improvements in treatments. Health experts worry that a winter wave of cases will strain hospitals and result in a new surge of deaths.

For now, Cooper is hoping his warning will moderate the behavior not only of virus doubters, but those who might let their guard down this holiday week. We hope he’s right, and we appreciate his nod to those who say government should give them the opportunity to be responsible. But this much also is true: COVID-19 is worsening. North Carolina won’t have many, if any, more chances to hold off another surge. If you don’t want the governor in your business, you need to take care of it yourself.