7 big questions for N.C. in 2021

COVID and politics will shape North Carolina for the next year

The week between Christmas and New Year is always a dead week in the news business. You’ve still got to work, but nothing is happening and nobody is answering their phones. The newspaper still needs copy, though, so we manufactured it by means of years-in-review, rankings, top stories, looks ahead. As a business reporter, one of my annual stories was a look at how the stocks of North Carolina’s 50 largest publicly traded companies fared the previous year. 

The top stories are all pretty obvious this year. Between the coronavirus pandemic and the 2020 election cycle, there was very little oxygen for anything else.

Next year likely won’t be much different. Between the roll-out of the COVID vaccines and the Biden administration’s first year in office, the agenda feels already set. We’re still at least a year out before things start to feel more normal. 

So, appropriately, my burning questions for 2021 mostly revolve around COVID and our state’s recovery from it - with a little bit of election news mixed in.

Will COVID vaccines get to people who need them?

The first round of doses has made its way to our state’s hospitals, but there appears to be little accounting for who actually gets them. Atrium Health, Charlotte’s flagship hospital system, got in hot water for scheduling some of its marketing and tech workers for shots with this first phase of doses instead of keeping it to front-line healthcare workers. Atrium and the state Department of Heath and Human Services each pointed fingers at the other. How quickly will elderly and immunocompromised people in North Carolina get the vaccine? Or will our roll-out get bogged down? 

When will the emergency end?

I have a sinking feeling that Gov. Roy Cooper won’t lift the state of emergency until he can host his “Mission Accomplished” press conference. This, obviously, isn’t how North Carolina’s emergency powers are supposed to be used. Which will come first - Gov. Cooper ceding his power or the General Assembly getting the backbone to take it from him? 

Will Gov. Cooper sign a budget?

We’re still operating off of 2018’s budget for the most part after Gov. Cooper vetoed the last few budget bills. The state’s needs have changed quite a bit since then. The General Assembly is about to return for the long session, and I have no doubt they’ll put together a budget on the latest projections - whatever they turn out to be.

I don’t see Gov. Cooper vetoing the budget based on his insistence on expanding Medicaid, as he has done in the past. However, I do see him wielding the veto stamp over something related to COVID relief. The legislature will want to save some money in the rainy day fund if possible. The Governor will want to spend it immediately. My guess is North Carolina will be stuck with a round of mini-budgets yet again.

How many jobs are gone forever?

While the economy has bounced back a good deal from the COVID-related recession, North Carolina is still roughly 200,000 jobs shy of where we were at this point last year. Half of that is in hospitality, which got absolutely pummeled, with jobs down nearly 20% year over year. Most of these may come back. But manufacturing is down nearly 8%, and those won’t be as easily restored. Over the next year, we will likely find out which jobs are coming back and which are not - and then we must figure out how to keep growing again. 

Will schools reopen this fall?

The state’s large school districts are back to full-remote learning despite no evidence that this approach lessens the spread of coronavirus and much evidence that children are dramatically harmed. I doubt that there will be much in-person instruction the remainder of this school year. Will school reopen somewhat normally in fall 2021? Likely this will depend on getting teachers access to the COVID vaccine, because the NCAE will likely obstruct a return to school before this happens. 

Who gets drawn into an unfriendly district?

It’s redistricting time again this spring, and North Carolina still appears in line for a 14th congressional district. This means everybody’s lines will get redrawn to some extent - and there’s a good chance somebody’s electoral prospects will be significantly harmed. U.S. Reps. Rouzer, Hudson, Bishop, McHenry, Budd and Cawthorn will all be watching the process extremely closely. 

Can North Carolina recover from our culture of fear?

This one worries me more than any other. For nearly a year now, we’ve been conditioned to fear contact with other people. We’ve been told to stay in our homes, stay away from people we don’t live with, avoid church, playgrounds and school. Our society was already becoming impersonal; how well do you know your neighbors? As our state slowly returns to normal, how will our strained communities repair themselves? Will our kids be allowed to play together, will our pews fill back up? Once lost, can the personal touches of daily life be restored? 

Quick Takes

Governor Cooper’s power knows few bounds. We’ve discussed North Carolina’s egregiously lax emergency powers law before, but this move from King Cooper is even pushing the boundaries of that. By executive fiat, Cooper has declared that restaurants and bars can now sell cocktails to-go. How does he justify it? He says this falls under his power to waive any provision of law that “restricts the immediate relief of human suffering.” At least the N.C. Supreme Court ended Gov. Cooper’s quest to have control over block grant spending, ruling 6-1 against him. Every level of the court disagreed with the King.