RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Lt. Gov. Dan Forest (R) criticized Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s second phase of reopening on Friday, saying the plan has “inconsistencies.”
“I think the big challenges out there are things that people are seeing not just here in North Carolina but all over the country with the number of inconsistencies on decisions being made about which businesses can open and which businesses have to stay closed,” Forest said in an interview with CBS 17. “You can have potentially hundreds of people go to a restaurant and even use the bar in the restaurant, but you couldn’t have ten people in a bar.”
Forest is challenging Cooper in this year’s gubernatorial race as the current governor seeks a second term.
“I think it’s a good move to open up at 50 percent capacity, allow the restaurants to see how all of this works. I think you could to the same thing with gyms. I think you could do the same thing with bars right now,” Forest said.
On Friday morning, Cooper and Forest, along with the other eight members of the Council of State, held a conference call after the six Republican members pressed Cooper for a briefing on the state’s response to COVID-19.
Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, told the council one of the reasons she advised the governor to keep gyms closed was not because of sweating but because of heavy breathing when people exert themselves, which could lead to people transmitting the virus more easily.
Gov. Cooper said his office was preparing to issue further guidance on how the closure of bars is supposed to apply to breweries, wineries and other similar establishments.
As originally outlined by Gov. Cooper a month ago, phase two would have allowed bars and gyms to reopen with limited capacity and social distancing measures in place.
In an interview with CBS 17 Thursday, Cooper talked about his decision not to include them in phase two.
“Although our indicators were good, the numbers for positive cases continue to increase. So, we wanted to scale back a little bit,” he said. “Health care experts have been working closely with restaurants over the past several weeks and months for that matter in order to set up strong protections for their customers. And, at this 50 percent occupancy, we believe that it can be done safely.”
Phase two lasts at least until June 26.
“That goal has always been met. That curve has always been flat. You can’t go on like this forever. The virus is not going to go away, and it’s going to be here,” said Forest.
An article published Friday by The Atlantic profiled the state’s governor’s race, which had been expected to be one of the most hotly contested in the country this year. Recent polling has shown Cooper leading Forest by an average of 18 points, according to RealClearPolitics. Cooper’s approval rating also has gone up as polls have shown a majority of North Carolinians agreeing with the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the article, Forest was asked about trips he’s taken with Samaritan’s Purse to help tornado victims and his visits to help struggling small businesses where pictures and videos have shown him being in close contact with people and not wearing a mask.
“I don’t care about getting a virus,” Forest said.
CBS 17 asked Forest what he meant by that statement.
“Well, you know, I got the flu last year, Michael, ” Forest explained during an interview with CBS 17. “It was the worst thing I’ve ever had in my life. I was in bed for ten days. There were points in time I thought I was going to die. I didn’t go and tell anybody about it. Nobody knew I had the flu. I was down for well over 30 days before I felt better. I’m not worried about getting a virus. You can’t spend your life worrying about those kinds of things.”
If Forest wins in November, he would take office during a potential second wave of the coronavirus, as health officials have warned of that possibility.
“If health officials recommend it, are you prepared to order closures, if that’s what they call for?” CBS 17 asked Forest.
“I wouldn’t just listen to health officials. I would listen to a much broader base of people who can bring their expertise to the table. I think that’s been one of the challenges here, is that at least my colleagues on the Council of State have felt like the governor hasn’t opened the doors to a much broader base of decision makers. Your health officials will tell you they don’t know everything.”
Forest has been critical of Cooper’s handling of the dramatic increase in unemployment claims since the COVID-19 crisis began. As of Friday, the Division of Employment Security said 930,032 have filed for unemployment benefits. Among them, 573,736 of them have started getting payments. For two months, people have told CBS 17 of challenges they’ve faced getting their claims processed either online or through the DES call center.
“The governor has hundreds of staff members and lots of different agencies and departments, and I would say this should be your number one priority right now,” Forest said. “The system has to be modernized. I think that’s what we’re finding out is the system itself has failed. The people at employment security, I think, are working as hard as they can. Are there enough of them? No, there aren’t. But, the system is going to have to be modernized.”
The state Senate recently agreed on a proposal to increase the maximum unemployment benefit people receive from the state each week from $350 to $400 beginning in August. That’s the point when an additional $600 weekly unemployment payment from the federal government is set to end.
That proposal was removed from the final COVID-19 relief bills the legislature passed earlier this month when some members of the state House of Representatives raised concerns.
CBS 17 asked Forest if he would support increasing the state’s unemployment benefits.
“You’ve heard the stories of people saying I don’t want to go back to work yet because I’m making more money on unemployment than I will going back to work. Our restaurant owners and folks like that are very concerned right now that they’re not going to be able to get their employees back,” Forest said. “I think that’s already going to delay the opening of the economy right now, so I think the benefits side is good.”