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Bipartisan bill to reopen bars heads to Cooper

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(The Center Square) — The North Carolina House voted Thursday in favor of a bill that would allow bars to reopen immediately and expand capacity for restaurants, a measure that would override the governor's active executive order.

House Bill 536 authorizes restaurants, bars, breweries, distilleries and wineries to resume services outdoors at 50 percent of their total capacity of their indoor area or 100 customers, whichever is less.

The bill had passed the Senate earlier Thursday.

Gov. Roy Cooper's executive order, which took effect Friday, allowed restaurants to resume dining services either indoors or outdoors at 50 percent capacity. Breweries, distilleries and wineries are also allowed to serve alcoholic beverages, but bars and taverns remained shuttered. Many other businesses, including nightclubs, gyms, indoor fitness centers, movie theaters, bowling alleys and museums, must also remain closed.

A heated debate broke out on the House floor over the intentions behind the Republican-sponsored bill. Democrats said the measure is an attempt to usurp the governor's power.

Republicans have been critical of Cooper's decision to lift certain restrictions gradually as the state reopens its economy after weeks of being shutdown or restricted as part of the response to COVID-19.

Strip club owners and church leaders have filed lawsuits against the governor because of rules in phase one.

Members of the North Carolina Bar and Tavern Association said they plan to file a lawsuit against Cooper's office Friday if his executive order for phase two is not adjusted to permit bars and nightclubs to reopen.

Rep. Keith Kidwell, R-Beaufort, said he is working with gym owners on their lawsuit, which was filed Wednesday, to overturn the restrictions. Kidwell said the bill is about freedom rights.

"You have the right to the fruits of your labor in our Declaration of Independence," he said. "It tells you, you have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

"The governor does not have the authority under our laws, under our state constitution, or under our federal constitution to do what he has done," Kidwell said.

Democratic House Leader Darren Jackson, D-Wake, said the restrictions were implemented to address a public health issue.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reported 784 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, up from the 488 reported Wednesday. A total of 859 people have died from COVID-19.

"I don't want the economy shut down," said Jackson, who also detailed the safety process his wife, who works in the medical field, goes through every day.

"The only way to keep this economy from shutting down is to wear a mask when you go out and stay 6 feet apart and do the safe things," Jackson said, adding that people usually talk loud at bars, which could increase the risk.

The bill passed the House with a 65-53 vote. Earlier Thursday, the Senate approved the bill, 42-5.

If Cooper signs it into law, it would remain in effect for 30 days after the executive order is lifted, but the governor said Thursday he had "concerns" about the legislation.

"We think it has the potential to harm public health," he said. "I know that businesses are hurting, and I want to get our economy reignited. That's why I thought it was worth the risk to move into phase two - to open up more businesses in a safe way in order to get the economy moving again."

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