Democratic Gov. John Carney on Tuesday announced a further loosening of his coronavirus restrictions on Delaware businesses, but Republican lawmakers are claiming that Carney is moving too slowly and has abused his authority.
Carney said retail establishments may start operating by appointment only Wednesday morning, and that restaurants and bars can begin applying Friday to expand outdoor-seating capacity when those businesses reopen next month.
Carney had previously announced that retailers and restaurants would be allowed to resume indoor operations at 30 percent of stated fire capacity starting June 1.
Retail establishments covered by Tuesday’s announcement will be allowed to accept two appointments per half hour. They must also comply with social distancing and cleaning guidance from government officials.
Restrictions on swimming and sunbathing at Delaware beaches are scheduled to be lifted effective Friday evening, but Carney is facing increasing pressure to move faster.
A group of 15 GOP lawmakers sent a letter to Carney calling for a broad easing of his coronavirus restrictions.
“We urge you in the strongest possible terms to give people and business owners back their freedom and let them assume responsibility for themselves and their communities,” the letter reads.
Full coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak and how it impacts you
The lawmakers accused Carney’s administration of favoring “large and powerful business interests over our local merchants” and of spreading panic and fear “far and wide” through mixed messages and confusion.
They called on Carney to begin the first phase of reopening Delaware’s economy on Friday, not June 1, noting that Memorial Day weekend is a critical time for many businesses, especially at the beaches. They also urged Carney to end restrictions on church services, short-term lodging and children’s activities.
Republican lawmakers also called for an audit of hospitalizations and deaths, saying “there is a great deal of chatter in the medical community about deaths being classified as COVID-19 that perhaps should not be.”
In his semiweekly coronavirus briefing, Carney said Tuesday that he was “very disappointed” by the letter.
“It just sounds political to me,” he said, noting what he described as its “divisive tone and inaccuracies.”
Meanwhile, a trio of Republican lawmakers from southern Delaware sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Tuesday complaining that a host of actions taken by Carney in an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus violate the constitutional rights of Delaware residents and business owners. Those actions include banning large public gatherings, ordering people to stay at home except for “essential travel,” restricting access to public and private beaches, banning short-term rentals, and shuttering “nonessential businesses” while allowing “essential businesses” to remain open.
Sens. Brian Pettyjohn and David Wilson and Rep. Ruth Briggs King also noted that Carney unilaterally moved the date of Delaware’s presidential primary and authorized universal absentee voting in the primary.
The lawmakers maintain that Carney has usurped the authority of Delaware citizens and the legislative and judicial branches of state government, and that his decisions “are not supported by a rational connection or nexus to the proclaimed state of emergency.”
“We would respectfully request your immediate attention to this broad, unconstitutional overreaching by the Governor of Delaware and the wholesale violation of the important rights guaranteed all citizens of these United States,” the letter concludes.
Elsewhere Tuesday, attorneys for a well-known pastor and African-American community activist in New Castle County sued Carney in federal court over his restrictions on church gatherings.
Rev. Dr. Christopher Allan Bullock claims that Carney has been “deliberately indifferent to the unconstitutional effect of his emergency orders” on places of worship. The lawsuit also states that Carney’s “wholesale shutdown of religious worship” has had a racially discriminatory effect on the black community.
Bullock is seeking an injunction opening up worship services effective Sunday, May 31.
The lawsuit was filed one day after Carney announced that churches, which he had limited to services involving no more than 10 staff and participants, would be allowed to hold services with crowds limited to no more than 30% of stated fire occupancy. But the governor also imposed a host of conditions and restrictions on those services, including limiting them to no more than one hour, banning choirs, prohibiting person-to-person administration of Communion, and banning communal receptacles for congregants to bless themselves with holy water.
The lawsuit suggests that in imposing those restrictions on worship services, Carney crossed the line separating church and state.