Bill reopening fitness centers clears legislature with bipartisan support; amusement venue bill passes Senate

Bill reopening fitness centers clears legislature with bipartisan support; amusement venue bill passes Senate

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State legislators are challenging the Cooper administration’s perseverance with certain public-health restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Senate passed with bipartisan support two reopening bills Thursday affecting fitness centers (House Bill 806) and amusement parks (House Bill 795). The House passed HB806 early Friday.

Unlike two other vetoed reopening bills — House Bill 536 and House Bill 594 — the latest bills had enough Senate Democratic support to override a veto from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

Both HB806 and HB795 would become effective when they become law and would expire with Cooper’s executive order No. 141 ends.

The foremost difference between the two vetoed bills and the fitness centers and amusement bills is that the latter bills remove what some Democratic legislators called a “poison pill” — language that would have limited the governor’s executive order authority.

The Senate approved the fitness centers bill by a 35-11 vote with eight Democrat votes, and the amusement venues bill by a 33-14 vote with five Democrat votes.

The House passed HB806 by a 75-31 vote. The vote count was not immediately available early Friday.

The House voted 101-4 to not concur with the Senate changes out of concerns that the bill's language addressing arcades might create a loophole for video sweepstakes business to reopen. 

Republican legislative leaders said late Thursday they expected to wrap up remaining bill negotiations and votes before ending their work.

At full attendance, there needs to be at least 72 votes in the House and at least 30 votes in the Senate to override a governor’s veto.

HB806 represents the 11th-hour resurfacing of the initial version of House Bill 594.

Meanwhile, HB795 carried similar language to House Bill 258, which contained the council language.

HB 258 passed the House by a 66-49 vote on Tuesday — within the range to sustain a Cooper veto — and the Senate by a 31-12 vote June 19. Cooper has 10 days to sign the bill, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

The bill would allow fitness facilities to operate indoors at 40% of their authorized capacity. Employees wouldn’t count toward the capacity limit.

Under Phase Two of Cooper’s three-part plan to reopen the state, which began May 22, he chose to keep closed several businesses that had been projected to reopen with similar 50% capacity limits that restaurants and personal-care services must observe. Those businesses include bars, nightclubs, public playgrounds, gyms and fitness centers, movie theaters, bowling alleys, bingo parlors, and museums.

On Wednesday, Cooper extended the Phase Two restrictions in what he called a pause until July 17.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s health secretary, has recommended keeping fitness facilities closed until Phase Three. She has said the facilities carry higher risk for spread of the virus in part because individuals working out are breathing harder and respiratory droplets can be discharged at greater distances.

Under HB806, fitness-center employees would be required for each work shift to have their temperature taken and answer a health questionnaire. They would be required to wear a face mask except when leading a group fitness class or an outdoor activity.

Members and visitors would be “strongly encouraged to wear face masks.” Social-distancing guidelines of at least 6 feet of separation would be enforced for cardiovascular and weight-training equipment and fitness classes. On-premises child care also would be subject to 50% capacity.

Before the initial version of HB594 could reach the House floor, language was inserted from a vetoed HB536 by its sponsor, Sen. Rick Gunn, R-Alamance, that allowed private bars and clubs to open at similar indoor capacity.

The amended HB594 added a contentious caveat — the governor’s ability to restore capacity restrictions on those businesses would be contingent upon gaining the concurrence of the 10-member Council of State.

The council is made up of six Republican and four Democratic members, including Cooper.

Cooper vetoed HB594 on June 19, in large part because of the Council of State language.

Some Senate Democrats said during the floor debate on HB594 that they could support “a clean” bill to reopen fitness centers and gyms that removed the Council of State requirement.

Gunn cited several of those Senate Democrats’ comments before HB806 was addressed Thursday.

Several Senate Democrats expressed concern that HB806 would not require individuals in fitness centers and gyms to wear face masks. Gunn did not address that particular concern, but said it addressed what Cooper laid out in executive order No. 141.

Gunn said HB806 gives Cooper immediate ability to close these facilities if there is a spike in COVID-19 cases.

HB258 would permit the reopening of amusement parks — such as Carowinds — carnivals, arcades, fairs and venues that host parties and other social gatherings. It also affects certain dining and beverage establishments at outdoor stadiums.

HB795 removed the dining and beverage language.

“Thousands of people’s livelihoods hinge on whether they can reopen their businesses, and that consideration is more important that squabbles about power,” Gunn said.

rcraver@wsjournal.com

336-727-7376

@rcraverWSJ

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