RALEIGH — Last week schools got an option. Tuesday, large entertainment venues joined them.
Gov. Roy Cooper again yielded to pressure and announced large outdoor venues can reopen to 7 percent capacity, starting a week from Friday. He also announced a fix to a problem he in part created, establishing a $40 million program to help thousands of businesses like gyms, theaters and bars that have been hurt by the coronavirus.
Fans of sports teams across the state were stunned when he wouldn’t allow, for example, a couple of hundred parents of Carolina’s football team to space apart and watch their kids play in 50,500-seat Kenan Stadium on Sept. 12. The number of parents and even siblings would have constituted a fraction of what happens in stores that allow shoppers based on square footage.
Large entertainment venues are those deemed to seat more than 10,000.
“We will continue analyzing our data and indicators as we determine how to move forward safely in other areas that may be included in the new order on Oct. 2,” Cooper said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon. “In it, we hope to ease some other restrictions, while still keeping safety protocols like masks, social distancing, and mass gathering limits in place.”
The move will allow about 5,000 fans to attend the NFL game Oct. 4 when Carolina hosts Arizona. Duke is the lone ACC football team in the Triangle home that weekend, and Carolina the next one.
“Our progress is fragile and will take our continued hard work to protect it,” said Dr. Mandy Cohen, the cabinet-level secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
The relief program didn’t have specifics announced, with a release from the governor saying only that the Department of Commerce will begin accepting applications soon.
The program is called MURR, which is an acronym for Mortgage, Utility and Rent Relief. The funds for each business can be up to $20,000 and be applied to up to four months of mortgage interest or rent expenses, and utility expenses. Money will go out on a first-come, first-served basis.
The applicants must:
• Provide certification they were closed between April 1 and July 31.
• Show they expect to be able to operate after the COVID-19 crisis has passed.
• Not have not been reimbursed by any other federal source for the expenses for which they seek reimbursement through the program.
The eligible industries are amusement parks; banquet halls (with catering staff); bars, taverns, night clubs, cocktail lounges; bingo parlors; bowling alleys; dance halls; indoor fitness and recreation centers; motion picture and movie theaters; and museums. That list includes a number of businesses closed longer than four months.
The state started Cooper’s first phase of reopening — following a 30-day stay at home order — on May 8, and on May 22 Cooper pivoted from an expected full second phase reopening and kept bars, nightclubs, museums, playgrounds, gyms and fitness centers, and indoor entertainment venues closed. Restaurants, hair and nail salons, and pools were allowed 50 percent capacity.
On June 23, he for the first time issued a mandate for face coverings to be worn starting June 26 and extended the modified stay at home order three weeks from June 26 to July 17. Then came another three-week extension, followed by a five-week extension to Sept. 11 that he partially cut short one week — allowing on Sept. 4 the opening of playgrounds, museums and aquariums, gyms and indoor exercise facilities, skating rinks, bowling alleys, and indoor basketball and volleyball facilities. They had been closed 22-plus weeks.
Cooper called that opening Phase 2.5, even though the state never went from Phase 1 to Phase 2. In fact, still closed on an order set to expire Oct. 2 are the state’s bars, nightclubs, movie theaters, indoor entertainment facilities, amusement parks and dance halls.
Food and beverage venues were restricted to drive-thru, carry-out and delivery only — closing bars and nightclubs — on March 17.
“Small businesses are the backbone of our economy — powering our local communities and giving back in so many ways,” Cooper said. “They deserve our support, and this new initiative can help them weather this tough time.”
The moves come as absentee ballots are coming in by the tens of thousands across North Carolina. They were mailed out on Sept. 4 and more than 23,000 came back by Sept. 11. Last week, Cooper said public schools with grades K-5 could return to the classrooms on Oct. 5 with no limit on capacity.
Through Tuesday morning’s report on the state Board of Elections site, more than 153,000 absentee ballots have come back. Cooper is being challenged for his position by Lt. Gov. Dan Forest.
Alan Wooten can be reached at 910-247-9132 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @alanwooten19.