COVID-19, News

House COVID-19 relief bill moves to vote today

A package of pandemic relief measures moves to a full vote in the state House today. But lawmakers in the House Rules Committee meeting Wednesday were still ironing out a few points in the bill.

Yesterday the state Senate unanimously approved to its own COVID-19 Recovery Act. The two chambers will have to reconcile their proposals before sending a compromise to Gov. Roy Cooper for his signature, which leadership in both chambers hope to do swiftly.

The most debate in Wednesday’s Rules Committee meeting came during discussion of some fine points of House Bill 1043, the Pandemic Response Act.

The two largest sticking points: a proposal to allow curb-side sale of mixed drinks with food service, and language about when police officers would be justified in asking people to remove face masks worn to help slow the spread of the virus.

Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston) opposed the drink measure, by which restaurants would be able to sell two alcoholic drinks per food order while operating take-out operations during the pandemic.

Torbett said he understands bars and restaurants have been hit hard by bans on dine-in service that have forced a move to delivery and curb-side take-out, but believes doing alcohol sales the same way raises too many troubling possibilities.

Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston)

“I’m deeply concerned by that,” Torbett said Wednesday.

One, it provides access to an open container in an automobile and  also provides better access to drinking and driving,” Torbett said. “It also provides access for minors in a vehicle if those two drinks are in the vehicle. I’d be all supportive of consumption on the property, similar to what they do now when they’re open and there is outside dining. But to be able to take two mixed drinks, if there’s two people that’s four, in a car driving home, I’m deeply concerned about what we’re doing with this action.”

Torbett also expressed concerns about the effect on children and “marital issues” if the state made alcohol more widely available during the crisis.

Rep. John Bell (R-Wayne) said the change, proposed by the chairs of the ABC committee, would essentially be an extension of the Alcoholic Beverage Control rules that already allow such sales with sealed beer and wine. Drinks served with take-out would have to have sealed lids and all rules about open containers in cars and drinking while driving would still apply.

Rep. Robert Reives (D-Chatham)

But Rep. Amos Quick (D-Guilford) echoed Torbett’s worries. “I have very similar concerns,” Quick said. “That frightens me a little bit that we would head in that direction.”

A similar measure failed to make its way into the Senate bill. But with the support of the hospitality industry, it may make it into law this session.

The question of when police officers may ask for the removal of masks was a more complicated issue.

Rep. Robert Reives (D-Chatham) initially offered an amendment to clarify a single troubling line in the bill:

“(c) A person wearing a mask for the purpose of ensuring the physical health or safety of the wearer or others shall remove the mask during a traffic stop, including at a checkpoint or roadblock under G.S. 20-16.3A, or when approached by a law enforcement officer.”

Reives said requiring removal of a mask during roadblocks or traffic stops made sense, but “when approached by a law enforcement officer” may be too broad.

“The big concern I have there is I think you’re opening up a lot of opportunities,” Reives said. “A lot of us don’t picture a circumstance where a law enforcement officer might approach you for no particular reason.”

“This is really in my opinion for protection of law enforcement officers during a very tense time,” Reives said. “That we don’t have officers feeling like that it’s okay to just approach Joe on the street and say ‘Hey, I need you to remove that mask so that I can make sure I know who it is you are.’ I don’t think that’s what we want. I think we want to balance their ability to enforce laws and protect people and protect themselves with a person’s right to still kind of go on about their lives.”

In the last month, there has been a national discussion about whether police will disproportionately question Black people who wear masks for health reasons, considering them to be a threat, regardless of whether they are actually suspects in a crime or behaving suspiciously.

“There’s going to be some natural tension about who gets approached with these masks, who gets talked to, things of that sort,” Reives said. “And there will be a lot of times that is legitimate by law enforcement officers. I just think we ought to make sure that we’ve got some reason that we’re approaching regular Joe on the street whenever we are asking them to remove their masks.”

Reives ultimately withdrew his amendment, saying he would work with other lawmakers on the ultimate language without forcing what could be a divisive vote on a part of the bill that could be worked out before final passage.

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