COVID-19, News

As nation tops 200,000 COVID deaths, NC rolls out new tracking app, gets ready to open large outdoor venues

The NC Department of Health and Human Services has launched a new tool to help the state alert North Carolinians to if they have been exposed to COVID-19.

The free and voluntary app – ‘SlowCOVIDNC’ – leverages Apple and Google’s Exposure Notification System and will alert users if they have been in close contact with an individual who later tests positive for COVID-19.

“I want to be clear on what it does not do,” explained NCDHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen. “It does not collect, use or share any personal information. It does not use GPS  or know your location. It does use Bluetooth and does know if you’ve come into close range of another phone that also has the SlowCOVIDNC app.”

Through Bluetooth, phones with the SlowCOVIDNC app work in the background exchanging  anonymous “tokens” every few minutes. Phones record how long they are near each other and the Bluetooth signal strength of their exchanges in order to estimate distance.

If a person with the app tests positive, the individual may obtain a unique PIN to submit in the app. This voluntary and anonymous reporting notifies others who have downloaded the app that they may have been in close contact with someone in the last 14 days who has tested positive.

Sec. Cohen believes the new app will be especially useful in slowing the spread of the coronavirus on college campuses with students living in dorms or sharing off-campus apartments.

“The more folks that download it [the app] the better,” Cohen said. “If more folks have the app, it means it’s going to be able to signal to you if you’ve had an exposure.”

The launch of the app comes just days before the state is expected to announce the further easing of restrictions.

Governor Roy Cooper said his office will announce next week if key metrics continue to hold that larger outdoor event venues will be allowed to reopen at seven percent capacity starting October 2nd.

“We share this news today so that those outdoor venues with seating capacity of more than 10,000 can begin preparations that are key to safely reopening their doors to have a limited amount of socially distanced fans,” said Cooper.

The governor has been under pressure in recent weeks from sports fans that want to be back in the stadiums for the fall football season.

For Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte (with a capacity of 75,523 seats) it would mean roughly 5,286 fans could attend in person. At Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh (with a capacity of 58,000) it would mean 4,060 fans in attendance. Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill (with a capacity of 51,000) could accommodate 3,570 fans under the proposed guidelines.

Look for more details on those restrictions being lifted next week.

The governor also announced on Tuesday an additional $40 million in COVID relief funds for small businesses.

The N.C. Mortgage, Utility and Rent Relief (MURR) funds will be  administered by the state  Department of Commerce and will  provide up to $20,000 in relief  per qualifying business location.

Applicants can apply for up to four months of mortgage interest or rent expenses and utility expenses.

The Department of Commerce will begin accepting applications in the next two weeks.

For additional information on the program, visit www.nccommerce.com/murr.

North Carolina recorded 1,168 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, a number that has been holding steady for the past week, with 905 people hospitalized.

Nationally, COVID-19 has infected 6.8 million Americans and now accounted for 200,477 deaths in our country, according to Johns Hopkins University of Medicine.

Click below to learn more about the new app to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Courts & the Law, News

GOP senators line up in support of Supreme Court vote

The U.S. Supreme Court. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Multiple Republican senators indicated Monday and Tuesday that they won’t stand in the way of a furious effort by the Senate GOP leadership to confirm a nominee to fill a Supreme Court vacancy before Inauguration Day.

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley ended the suspense with a statement Monday night saying there’s no “ambiguity” about what direction for the high court Americans wanted when they voted for President Donald Trump four years ago.

And Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, who’s in a tough reelection battle, said a short time later that he also would let the confirmation process move forward, saying in a statement posted to Twitter that he would vote to confirm a “qualified nominee” who is tapped by Trump.

Had Grassley or Gardner joined two other GOP senators in opposing a vote on a nominee, it would have left Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell with an even slimmer margin to win confirmation for the replacement for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska have already said the winner of the presidential election should choose the next justice.

The effort to advance received an additional boost today when Utah’s Mitt Romney indicated that he too would support a vote.

McConnell (R-Ky.) pledged Friday to hold a confirmation vote on the Senate floor, but it remains unclear whether he has enough support to do so this year. He also did not specify whether the vote would come before or after the November election.

Grassley said in July that if a Supreme Court justice died this year, he as Judiciary Committee chairman would not hold a hearing on a new nominee because he did not do so in a similar situation in 2016. He is no longer chairman but was four years ago when President Barack Obama unsuccessfully sought the confirmation of Judge Merrick Garland to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

“Over the years, and as recently as July, I’ve consistently said that taking up and evaluating a nominee in 2020 would be a decision for the current chairman of the Judiciary Committee and the Senate Majority Leader,” Grassley said in his Monday statement.

“Both have confirmed their intentions to move forward, so that’s what will happen. Once the hearings are underway, it’s my responsibility to evaluate the nominee on the merits, just as I always have. The Constitution gives the Senate that authority, and the American people’s voices in the most recent election couldn’t be clearer. While there was ambiguity about the American people’s will for the direction of the Supreme Court in 2016 under a divided government, there is no such ambiguity in 2020.”

Gardner said that when a president makes a nomination, it’s up to the Senate to decide how to proceed with its duty of advice and consent. “I have and will continue to support judicial nominees who will protect our Constitution, not legislate from the bench, and uphold the law. Should a qualified nominee who meets this criteria be put forward, I will vote to confirm,” he said.

Among other Republican senators, those backing McConnell included Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Arizona’s Martha McSally, Rob Portman of Ohio, Lamar Alexander and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin,  and David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia.

On Monday, Trump announced he was considering five women to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Ginsburg, an icon of the left who was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Trump said he would “probably” announce his pick on Saturday and said he hopes the vote will take place before the election. Ginsburg, however, according to her granddaughter, said before her death that it was her “most fervent wish” to not be replaced before Inauguration Day.

Nominees to the high court need a simple majority to win confirmation.

Republicans control 53 seats in the Senate. Opposition from Collins and Murkowski leaves Trump and McConnell with a maximum possibility of 51 GOP votes if the nominee were to come to the Senate floor before Election Day. If they lost another, that would mean Vice President Mike Pence most likely would cast a tie-breaking vote in favor of the nominee.

Trump and McConnell could lose yet another vote in support of confirmation this year if Arizona’s McSally loses her special election contest against former astronaut Mark Kelly, a Democrat. If Kelly wins, he could take office as early as Nov. 30, giving Democrats a key vote against Trump’s nominee and possibly enough votes to block confirmation. Read more

COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

UNC Board of Governors Chairman: UNC System President, chancellors making final decisions on pandemic closings

Three of the largest UNC System universities moved all undergraduate instruction online at the beginning of the Fall semester after out of control on-campus COVID-19 infection clusters.

But more than a month later, it has remained unclear how those decisions were made and by whom.

In July UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey told chancellors decisions about school closings would  be made by incoming UNC System President Peter Hans and the board, not by individual school chancellors.

“I want to be very clear about one thing,” Ramsey wrote in the email to chancellors of the 17 UNC campuses. “I expect Peter and the board to make the decision about this fall consulting with current leadership.”

But after UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State University and East Carolina University moved online and UNC-Charlotte announced it would begin the semester online until the beginning of October, board members said they had no part in that decision.

UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey

Board member Marty Kotis bristled at suggestions by chancellors by chancellors and statements like those from UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Public Health that the board mandated openings, overruled chancellors or ultimately decided which schools would close or remain open.

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz told a faculty meeting he was advised by the UNC System to “stay the course” on opening in-person though the Orange County Health Department advised against it.

That and other statements from school leaders across the system led many to assume the board of governors was directly involved in these decisions. Not so, said Kotis.

“We did not vote, we weren’t e-mailed, we didn’t really participate in those decisions,” Kotis said of the board’s role.

So who did make those decisions and how?

Policy Watch has been putting those questions to the UNC System office for more than a month. This week, Ramsey responded.

“Governor Kotis said the Board of Governors has not taken action to mandate reopening of the campuses nor overruled any campus reopening decisions. What he said is absolutely true, and I agree with him,” Ramsey said in a statement to Policy Watch Tuesday. ” In a large and diverse university system like ours, there is a great deal of shared responsibility, consultation, and collaboration.”

“Since President Hans came on board on August 1st, he has had the support of our board and the full authority to work with our chancellors to make the decisions to modify or adapt operations,” Ramsey said.  “President Hans has made these decisions on a campus-by-campus basis in collaboration with each Chancellor and consultation with the Board.  His decisions have been and will continue to be based on solid data, guidance from public health officials, and the best interests of the health and safety of our faculty, staff, and students.”

Kotis doesn’t disagree that the board has supported Hans and his decisions on which schools may go online or continue in person. But “consultation” isn’t the word he would use for the board’s role, he said Tuesday.

“We might have consulted as far as, we’d send an e-mail to ask about something,” Kotis said. “And we’ve gotten general information on COVID at our meetings. But we didn’t consult on school closings. I found out about it the same way you did, when it was announced. I don’t know what’s going to happen with UNC-Charlotte, but I’m sure I’ll read about it [in the news] and then I’ll get a message about it.”

Kotis said he’d like the board to have more input and more of a consulting role than they’ve had so far, because they’ve really had none. That’s particularly true of things like testing and safety procedures taken on campuses, on which Kotis believes there should be more board discussion and consultation. But that’s not a critique of the way openings and closings  decisions have been handled, Kotis said.

UNC Board of Governors member Marty Kotis

“We trust the president and that trust began with [former interim UNC System President] Bill Roper,” Kotis said. “Who’s going to question Bill Roper on this? Who’s going to question the former head of the CDC and UNC Health Care? We were glad to have him in that position during this. I think he and Peter Hans have done a good job.”

But no one — from chancellors and university officials to the public — should be under the impression that mandates or final decisions are coming from the board of governors, Kotis said.

“Some of the people within the schools who are trying to lay the blame at the feet of the board of governors when we had no involvement,” Kotis said. “It’s asinine to say that we’ve mandated all schools re-open when UNC-Charlotte isn’t open, they started online. There hasn’t been any mandate that all schools open. Not that I’m aware of.”

There are still 13 schools in the system functioning with in-person classes and on-campus living, Kotis said. At the schools where that hasn’t worked, the blame doesn’t belong with the board of governors, he said.

“There needs to be a deep, hard look at why the schools that had so many problems had these problems,” Kotis said.

That’s more important than affixing blame, Kotis said — particularly if some people are going to place it on a board of governors that wasn’t actively involved in the decision-making. Those who think the board forced schools to take a certain path are just misinformed, he said.

“Get you own shit sorted out before you go criticizing others,” he said,

But to it’s been difficult for the public to get a clear timeline and verifiable information on how those decisions were made. Policy Watch has requested documents, including UNC-System and campus-level e-mails, related to how the decisions at UNC-Chapel Hill and other schools were made. The UNC System yet to release communications between the Hans, the board and individual chancellors.

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper

Sen. Tillis says Trump will now extend offshore drilling moratorium to NC

In 2018, coastal residents packed a hearing and rally in opposition to offshore drilling and seismic testing. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

In a struggle to defend his incumbency, Sen. Thom Tillis announced on his website yesterday that he had spoken with President Donald Trump and “was informed that North Carolina will be included in a Presidential Memorandum” banning offshore drilling for 10 years. The moratorium would be in effect from July 1, 2022, to June 30, 2032.

On his Senate website, Tillis noted he had “urged” President Trump to extend  the moratorium to North Carolina.

The White House has not formally announced North Carolina’s inclusion in the moratorium.

Earlier this month, in what was tantamount to a political snub, Trump reinstated an offshore drilling moratorium for Florida, Georgia and South Carolina — but no North Carolina. The other Southeastern states included in the moratorium have Republican governors.

Trump also needs those states to win the election, and polling has showed voters there overwhelmingly oppose drilling off their respective states’ coasts.

Tillis also needs to galvanize support for his political campaign. An average of all polls taken in North Carolina show Tillis and Democratic opponent Cal Cunningham in a tie. However, results of a CBS 17/Emerson College poll published yesterday show Cunningham ahead 48.9% to 43%.

As for offshore drilling, Gov. Cooper’s administration has consistently opposed the prospect of that activity off the coast. The NC Department of Environmental Quality denied WesternGeco’s request to conduct offshore seismic testing, but was overruled by the US Department of Commerce.

Attorney General Josh Stein recently announced his office had filed suit against the federal Commerce Department over the WesternGeco approval.

WesternGeco subsequently withdrew its federal application. Four other companies have applied to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to conduct the testing.

North Carolina environmental groups ranging from the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club and Oceana, were cautiously optimistic about Tillis’s announcement.

“If this is true, we welcome the withdrawal of North Carolina from offshore drilling for 10 years,” said Randy Sturgill, Oceana Action senior campaign organizer, for the Southeast region. “With this action, President Trump acknowledges overwhelming opposition from North Carolina’s communities, businesses and bipartisan elected officials.

“Of course, it was the President’s own plan that threatened our state in the first place. Other East and West Coast states remain on the table for expanded drilling and deserve the same protections. What President Trump deems good enough for North Carolina and Florida should be good enough for other states, too. It’s time for the President to permanently protect our coasts and formally withdraw his entire radical offshore drilling plan.”