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NC Governor expands unemployment benefits to offset impact of dine-in closures at restaurants, bars

Gov. Roy Cooper announced today an expansion of unemployment insurance to help North Carolina workers after his decision to shut down in-person dining at restaurants and bars.

“We are in unprecedented times,” he said during a 2 p.m. press conference. “This will be a hardship.”

Starting at 5 p.m. today, all restaurants and bars have been ordered to shut their doors to dine-in customers, though they may continue fulfilling delivery and takeout orders. The hospitality industry employs 13 percent of the state’s workforce, according to the NC Restaurant and Lodging Association, which worked closely with the Governor’s office on the new executive order.

Cooper and North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said the decision to close restaurants and bars for dine-in was tough and will have economic consequences, but is necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the disease that is caused by the new coronavirus.

To help offset the impact on businesses, Cooper also announced a number of changes to the state’s unemployment benefits rules. His executive order removes the waiting period for an individual to receive benefits and offers some benefits to workers who don’t lose their jobs but whose hours are reduced because of the pandemic. It also removes the requirement that beneficiaries must actively search for work to continue receiving benefits.

“I recognize this decision will cost people their jobs, so this order also brings them some relief,” Cooper said.

Businesses that have to make changes because of the coronavirus also won’t be responsible for unemployment benefits paid to their employees, according to Cooper’s order.

North Carolina has had the stingiest unemployment insurance system in the country since Republican lawmakers imposed changes over the past decade. Today, less than 9 percent of the unemployed collect the average weekly benefit of $264.

Sen. President Pro Tem Phil Berger claimed the changes they made helped build the unemployment reserve to $3.8 billion, one of the largest in the country.

He added in a news release that he believes between federal unemployment assistance and any adjustments to the state program, there will be enough assistance in place for North Carolinians affected by the economic fallout from the virus. Adjustments needed, he said, will become clearer once there is more finality on what the federal program will look like.

Cooper’s order makes it possible for individuals to apply for unemployment benefits over the phone, online or in person, as usual.

“Some things are just going to have to change for awhile,” the Governor said. “This will be a long and difficult road for us to travel. Even as some things change, who we are will not. We will learn from this and we will be better than we were before.”

Cohen announced at the same press conference that North Carolina has 40 positive COVID-19 cases in 16 counties across the state. There have been more than 1,100 tests collected across the state and thousands more are in the pipeline across the state.

She added that in addition to the State Lab, there are multiple health facilities and labs conducting testing now. DHHS also continues to work with the healthcare community to expand sample collection sites for people who may have the virus.

“Last night we sent guidelines to every doctor in the state through the medical board on how they can collect samples from appropriate patients while also protecting themselves and other patients at their practice,” Cohen said.

If someone is experiencing symptoms, like a fever and cough, they think may be due to COVID-19, Cohen urged them to call their doctor, or if they don’t have a doctor, to call their local health department or local community health center.

She reminded people that the situation is fluid, and that communities could expect more change and guidance as health officials learn more. For more information about the pandemic and North Carolina’s response, visit DHHS’ landing page dedicated to coronavirus.

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