It was early into 2020.
The country was focusing its attention on a presidential primary contest that had made its way to North Carolina, the newest addition to the slate of states that voted on Super Tuesday that year.
Gov. Roy Cooper ordered the creation of a task force to coordinate the state’s response to a new pathogen, which had made its way to the U.S. by late January, on Feb. 11.
“Though currently the risk to North Carolinians is low, we are taking a proactive approach and are prepared for potential scenarios,” Cooper said in a statement that day.
On March 3, the state identified the first person within its borders known to test positive for the new disease, which they contracted during a visit to the state of Washington.
Few knew what to expect of the disease, about which little was known other than its name: SARS-CoV-2 — though it would later be known as COVID-19.
But on March 10, Cooper issued the first of many executive orders declaring a state of emergency to assist in the coordination of the state’s efforts to combat the novel coronavirus.
Now, a year later, North Carolina is still grappling with many of the same issues that were presented at the beginning of the pandemic.
A screeching halt
Soon, the state of North Carolina, like the rest of the country, began shutting down.
On March 14, Cooper signed an executive order shutting down K-12 public schools for at least two weeks and banning public gatherings of over 100 people. Three days later, he announced an executive order that closed restaurants and bars for dine-in customers.
A week later, the closures began to appear more long-lasting than first expected. On March 23, Cooper extended school closures through May 15 and ordered the closure of “close-contact” businesses like bowling alleys and movie theaters via executive order. He then signed another executive order directing residents to stay at home unless they had to leave for essential reasons.
The widespread closures ordered by the governor did not come unchallenged. Dan Forest, the state’s lieutenant governor at the time and Cooper's opponent in the gubernatorial race, said he believed Cooper had gone too far.
"His mandate will devastate our economy, shutter many small businesses, and leave many people unemployed, especially in the rural areas of our state where food supply is already critical,” Forest said in a statement on March 17.
Forest also said that such decisions ought to be made collectively by state leaders, not unilaterally imposed by the governor’s office.
In April, protesters crowded the streets of Raleigh to protest the negative effects of these closures. Many groups, like ReopenNC, lobbied for the state to scale back measures that limited economic activity that they said infringed upon their First Amendment rights.
Yet, even a year after they were enacted, Cooper and members of his cabinet still defend their decision to temporarily shut the state down.
Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said the lockdowns were crucial in giving the state more time to prepare its defenses against COVID-19.
“We really needed the lockdown time, I think, more for our ability to prepare for when we did ease restrictions,” Cohen said.
She said the state used the lockdown period to shore up supplies of PPE and to prevent the state’s health care infrastructure from being overwhelmed, and cites this approach as a reason why the state was able to post lower case and hospitalization numbers than the rest of the Southeast did during the summer.
COVID-19 relief bills
As this was happening, the General Assembly was putting together a comprehensive relief package, which took the form of two related bills which were signed into law on May 4.
In this first package, the General Assembly was largely reappropriating the nearly $3.5 billion given to it by the federal government through the first CARES Act, which was passed in March 2020. The state wound up allocating an additional $1.4 billion to a variety of programs.
Measures in the bill included in this first relief package directed $50 million in funds directed to the purchase of PPE and ventilators and $45 million to help with unemployment insurance.
The bill also included massive allocations to help educational institutions. A relief fund of nearly $400 million was created for elementary and secondary schools, while institutions of higher education received nearly $180 million.
A second relief bill was signed into law on July 1, allocating $150 million to county governments across the state for similar purposes. This was the second half of a $300 million allocation that was implemented in the first relief bill.
The third relief bill came in the wake of budget recommendations from Cooper, who had hoped to move the state closer to passing a biennial budget. Only some of his proposals were implemented in the bill, but it still coasted through the General Assembly and was signed into law on Sept. 4.
The Sept. 3 sessions for both chambers proved to be the last they’d hold until after newly elected legislators had been sworn in.
The lack of legislative activity meant most of the state’s new regulations related to COVID-19 would be coming from the governor’s office.
Cooper moved the state to Phase 2.5 on Sept. 1 via executive order, which allowed for mass gatherings of up to 25 people indoors or 50 people outdoors and established revised recommendations for social distancing and facial coverings. On Sept. 30, he further reduced restrictions by moving the state to Phase 3, citing a relative stabilization in the state’s case numbers.
An increase in case numbers and hospitalizations in the back end of 2020 brought about more direct actions from the governor. Statewide mask mandates usually came from his desk, and a tightening of mask requirements enforced via executive order on Nov. 23.
Another modified stay-at-home order was implemented on Dec. 11, requiring individuals to stay at home from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.
At the same time, the state was organizing its COVID-19 vaccination program through the NCDHHS, rolling out the vaccine starting with health care personnel and essential workers.
When the General Assembly returned to session in late January 2021, it got back to work on coronavirus-related policies.
A fourth relief bill was signed into law on Feb. 10, which expanded some previous unemployment benefits like the Extra Credit Grant program, supported rural hospitals and provided education funding, among other things. Two weeks later, Cooper loosened restrictions again and lifted the December stay-at-home order.
Yet, deadlock ensued on the issue of how to reopen the state’s public schools. Republicans in the General Assembly passed a bill requiring all school districts to offer in-person instruction as an option. They were frustrated, then, when the bill was vetoed on Feb. 26.
“Governor Cooper vetoed SB 37 to keep as many kids as possible locked in failing virtual schools ...,” Tim Wigginton, spokesperson for the N.C. GOP, said.
On the anniversary mark of the first state of emergency declaration, much remains to be seen on how leaders from both sides will negotiate the loosening of restrictions in schools and elsewhere.