North Carolina renters, colleges grapple with virus turmoil

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolinians will soon get some much-needed relief to help pay their rent and utility bills through three new programs.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper unveiled a new program Tuesday to give residents $94 million to prevent evictions and reduce electricity costs. An additional $53 million will be available to families that are homeless or face an immediate risk of becoming homeless. Another $28 million will be administered by local governments with less than 50,000 residents and counties with fewer than 200,000 residents to further help their community members pay for rent and outstanding utility bills.

“People need a safe, stable place to call home, especially during this pandemic, and we must help keep people in their homes and keep their utilities on while our economy recovers,” Cooper said in a statement.

Local governments can apply for their share of the $28 million available. Applications will be made available to the public for the remaining money in the coming weeks, according to Cooper’s office.

The announcement comes as North Carolina grapples with a large uptick in coronavirus cases across many college campuses. During the second week of classes, the proportion of COVID-19 tests coming back positive at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was 32.2%, up from 13.6% during the first week of classes and 2.8% the week before in-person learning.

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, said at a news conference on Tuesday that she wants colleges to more strictly enforce their honor codes by punishing students who participate in large, off-campus parties. Cooper’s executive order limits gatherings to 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors.

“This is about making sure that the guidance that we have on paper turns into the implementation that we need to see, and we need to see the universities do that ... to make sure students, whether on or off campus, are abiding by that guidance and the protocols to keep them and their communities safe,” Cohen said.

Since UNC-Chapel Hill resumed classes on Aug. 10, at least 635 students have tested positive for the coronavirus. North Carolina State University has reported 258 cases in the same period. At East Carolina University, 291 students got the coronavirus between Aug. 9 and Aug. 22. By Wednesday, all three campuses will have halted in-person classes for undergraduate students.

UNC-Charlotte begins classes Sept. 7 with online-only instruction. In-person classes for both undergraduate and graduate students is delayed until Oct. 1.

The four campuses that have shut down in-person learning to undergraduate students represent the four largest public colleges and universities in the University of North Carolina System in terms of undergraduate enrollment.

Thousands of students across the state have left their dorms and are about to get prorated refunds for housing and dining costs, which will put the already-worried UNC System in greater financial distress.

Jennifer Haygood, chief financial officer for the UNC System, pleaded with state lawmakers on Tuesday for $100 million in “flexible funding.” The state’s community college system requested $76.6 million, while a group of 36 independent colleges and universities in the state wanted $51 million.

“There are going to be significant financial ramifications of that need to pivot (to fully remote classes),” Haygood said.

North Carolina remains in Phase 2 of its reopening plan through 5 p.m. Sept. 11, which Cooper extended by five weeks in order to monitor what would happen at colleges and K-12 schools. Cohen signaled yet another extension of Cooper’s executive could be in store, as COVID cases have bumped slightly higher since schools reopened and daily testing on Tuesday reached its lowest point in more than a month.


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Anderson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.