Commentary, COVID-19

North Carolinians deserve more information about the State Treasurer’s bout with COVID-19

State Treasurer Dale Folwell

Let’s make it clear at the outset that everyone should be pulling for State Treasurer Dale Folwell to make a swift and complete recovery from COVID-19 and that no one is blaming him for falling ill.

As the disease continues its rampage through American society, almost everyone is at risk even when taking significant precautions.

It’s also true that hindsight is 20/20. While one wishes that Folwell had been more alert and cautious and not decided to head back to work after returning from a trip to an undisclosed location with his son with illness symptoms he dismissed as a typical cold or allergy, fallible humans often make mistakes. What’s more, while others in his office have subsequently tested positive for the illness as well, we do not know at this point if they worked with or were exposed to Folwell. (As a side note, one fervently hopes that, wherever he and his son went on their trip, Folwell notified as many people as possible with whom he came in contact.)

All that said, this situation raises some important legal issues about which North Carolinians deserve some additional information.

First and foremost is the matter of whether Folwell is actually exercising his constitutional and statutory duties or is even capable of doing so at this critical time for investment markets. Folwell is the sole overseer of a huge, multi-billion dollar public pension fund and has responsibility for a state health plan that serves more than 700,000 members. Raleigh’s News & Observer reported on Monday that Folwell has not responded to a text inquiry and a spokesperson said he was “under the care of doctors.” We do not know exactly what that means.

As the same N&O story also reported:

“[On March 26] Folwell said he could not answer a call from [the paper] because of the severity of his symptoms. ‘I am really focused on saving my energy by not talking which (agitates) my cough and lungs,’ Folwell said in a text message directing further questions to [Treasury Department spokesperson Frank] Lester.

On Sunday [March 29], Folwell did not answer a text message seeking an update on his condition.

Lester said Monday that Folwell remains sick and under the care of doctors. When asked if Folwell was hospitalized he said he had no further information he could provide. Lester said he is relying on Folwell’s family to tell him what they’re comfortable with the public knowing….

Lester said there is no succession plan while Folwell is out sick but that Chief of Staff Chris Farr has been leading the office.”

If Folwell is truly incapacitated, this raises important matters of state law. As a prominent North Carolina attorney recently pointed out in an email to Policy Watch, Article III, Section 7, Subsection 5 of the state constitution says the following:

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COVID-19, News

Gov. Cooper bars utility shutoffs for 60 days

Gov. Roy Cooper’s office issued Executive Order No. 124 this afternoon, barring utility shutoffs in North Carolina for 60 days.

The following statement was issued late this afternoon:

Governor Cooper Signs Executive Order to Prohibit Utility Disconnections in the Wake of COVID-19 

RALEIGH: Governor Roy Cooper today announced another step to help families by prohibiting utilities from disconnecting people who are unable to pay during this pandemic. Today’s Order applies to electric, gas, water and wastewater services for the next 60 days.

The Order directs utilities to give residential customers at least six months to pay outstanding bills and prohibits them from collecting fees, penalties or interest for late payment.

Telecommunication companies that provide phone, cable and internet services are strongly urged to follow these same rules.

“This action is particularly important since tomorrow is the first of the month, and I know that’s a date many families fear when they can’t make ends meet,” said Governor Cooper. “These protections will help families stay in their homes and keep vital services like electricity, water, and communications going as we Stay at Home.”

Additionally, the Order encourages banks not to charge customers for overdraft fees, late fees and other penalties. Landlords are strongly encouraged in the Order to follow the spirit of Chief Justice Cheri Beasley’s Order and delay any evictions that are already entered in the court system.

Governor Cooper was joined by Attorney General Josh Stein to announce the order and he thanked companies that have already voluntarily announced policies to prevent shutoffs, including Duke Energy, Dominion Energy, AT&T, and local electric co-ops, among many others. Today’s Order follows the Governor’s Stay At Home order, which is in effect until April 29.

The Council of State concurred with the Order today.

Read the full Order here.

Read an FAQ about the Order here.

The NC Department of Revenue also announced expanded tax relief measures today, waiving penalties for late filing or payments of multiple state tax categories. Learn more about this tax relief here.

Make sure the information you are getting about COVID-19 is coming directly from reliable sources like the CDC and NCDHHS. For more information, please visit the CDC’s website at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus and NCDHHS’ website at www.ncdhhs.gov/coronavirus, which includes daily updates on positive COVID-19 test results in North Carolina.

COVID-19

Restaurant, hotel businesses in free fall due to COVID-19 restrictions

Lynn Minges of the NC Restaurant and Lodging Association (Photo: NCRLA)

Nearly 400,000 jobs have been lost in North Carolina’s restaurant and hotel industries because of the COVID-19 pandemic, industry advocates told state lawmakers Tuesday.

The halting of most travel and closing of dine-in service at restaurants has devastated the state’s approximately 18,000 restaurants and 1,800 hotels, said Lynn Minges, president and CEO of the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association. Businesses are asking for help from state lawmakers as they wait for federal emergency relief funds  and the Golden LEAF Foundation is offering bridge loans

In a presentation to the N.C. House Select Committee on COVID-19’s Economic Support working group, Minges said many restaurants closed entirely after March 17, when dine-in service ended to ensure proper social distancing. Those that remain open are “essentially on life support,” she said.

“Many of those restaurants are limping along, on limited capacity serving only though drive-through, carry out and delivery,” Minges said. “But that is really not a sustainable model for them to be able to maintain for very long.”

The abrupt closure left little time for most restaurants to plan, Minges said. Owners are cash-strapped as their businesses’ incomes have dropped to a fraction of pre-pandemic levels; they are being forced to lay off employees for whom they don’t have enough work, she said. Many are making their existing payroll through credit cards.

Hotels are also beginning to see an enormous impact as business and leisure travel, concerts and conventions and other major drivers of the industry have stopped.

Source: NC Restaurant and Lodging Association

 

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Commentary, COVID-19

NC Attorney General takes welcome action to ease financial pressure on struggling households

Attorney General Stein

In case you missed it, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein took some welcome actions late last week to help ease some of the financial pressures afflicting households across the state.

In a news release, Stein announced that he has suspended “all of the North Carolina Department of Justice’s collections efforts of state debts effective immediately and until further notice.”

In addition, the A.G. issued a request to “all local and municipal utilities to commit to maintaining access to water, power, gas, and other vital services for residents.”

As Stein noted in his statement:

“North Carolinians who are struggling with their health, have been laid off from their job, or are facing cuts to their income in the wake of COVID-19 should not have to bear additional burdens that will further harm their health or their finances.”

The A.G. is on the mark. The last thing people need in the current environment is to face lawsuits and losses of essential services due to debts the crisis has made it impossible to pay back for the time being.

Let’s hope Stein’s action helps spur similar action by other governmental and private entities (e.g. landlords, loan companies) in the days and weeks ahead.

COVID-19, News

UNC System to reimburse students for unused dining, housing due to pandemic

The UNC System will reimburse students for unused housing and dining services, after universities shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Interim UNC System President Bill Roper announced the move Monday, when the UNC Board of Governors held a special session via teleconference.

“It is our commitment to all UNC System students and parents to get this done as quickly as possible,” Roper said. “It is also our obligation to get this done right. We hope to be able to announce specifics for processing and issuing refunds in the upcoming weeks.”

The reimbursements will be prorated, according to UNC System officials, refunding students for unused dining and time when campus housing was unavailable.

The UNC System has about 80,000 students living on the campuses of its 17 schools. The university stepped up efforts to get students out of the dorms earlier this month, requiring students who have no other housing or dining options to get approval from the school to stay. The move reduced the overall on-campus population by 90%, making proper social distancing procedures  easier.