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NORTH CAROLINA (WWAY) — The state House of Representatives has joined the North Carolina Senate in passing a bill that will allow restaurants and bars to allow outdoor seating equal to 50 percent of capacity.
Under Phase 2 of North Carolina’s reopening plan, bars are not allowed to reopen and restaurants are allowed to operate indoors or outdoors at 50 percent capacity. In the Senate on Thursday morning, House Bill 536 passed by a 42-5 margin.
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“Other states and cities are expanding outdoor seating options based on the science, facts, and data,” Sen. Rick Gunn said. “This industry has taken the brunt of the shutdown, and this policy just makes sense. I hope Gov. Cooper will support it.”
During a news conference on Thursday, Gov. Cooper responded to the bill, stressing that signing any regulations on business into law is dangerous because it limits the steps local governments and public health officials are able to take should a spike in cases and hospitalizations occur.
“On a day when we’re seeing some of our highest numbers of hospitalizations and deaths, the senate wants to open bars,” Cooper said. “This legislation would mean that even if there is a surge of COVID-19 that would overwhelm our hospitals, that bars would stay open.”
The bill now heads to the governor’s desk where he will have 10 days to sign or veto it. If he does not act within those 10 days, the bill will become law.
Rep. Chuck McGrady said the legislation provides equity for NC businesses that are hardest-hit by the economic shutdown.
“We join our colleagues across the General Assembly urging Governor Cooper to sign this legislation immediately to offer a lifeline to thousands of businesses across North Carolina through a safe, commonsense policy that is supported by science and data,” state House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) said Thursday.
The bill does not specify whether places like nightclubs are included.
Some local restaurants in Carolina Beach have already been taking advantage of outdoor seating for customers.
“People were very respectful, and maintained their distance from each other,” The Lazy Pirate Owner Jamie Aiken said. “It was calm. Even though it was busy, it was very, very calm. It was nice to see people actually taking it seriously.”
The Lazy Pirate is just one of those restaurants, and Aiken says their first weekend was a big success. He says they actually used part of their parking lot to expand their outdoor seating.
“The staff liked it,” Aiken said. “The guests liked it. And to be honest, some of the set up with the lights and stuff we added, we’re thinking about keeping it. So there’s always some silver lining that comes out of everything.”
Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest released a statement when the bill passed saying in part, “Unless the Cooper administration can provide specific science and data that proves sitting outside a bar is more dangerous than sitting outside a restaurant, this should become law – letting more North Carolinians get back to work.”
However, Cooper still says the time to open bars is not now.
“This legislation would mean, even if there is a surge of COVID-19 that would overwhelm our hospital, that bars still stay open,” he says.
With restaurants already getting a taste of outdoor seating, Aiken says it seems to be working pretty well for them.
“I don’t want to speak for other bars because everyone’s setup is different and unto themselves, but I think everybody should have the opportunity to be in business,” Aiken said.
California and Illinois have passed similar legislation to allow more businesses to reopen via outdoor seating.
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