N.C. Governor Roy Cooper announced in a press briefing today that the state will move into a “modest” Phase 2 of his COVID-19 recovery plan this Friday, May 22 at 5 p.m.
Dine-in restaurants, salons, barbershops, and swimming pools will be able to reopen at half capacity during this phase. Other businesses, like gyms, bars and public playgrounds, will remain closed.
Under Cooper's new executive order, the stay-at-home guidelines will be replaced with “safer-at-home” recommendations, which Cooper said will be important to follow for those more susceptible to severe illness.
“Safer-at-home means just what it says: just because you can go more places, doesn’t mean you always should,” Cooper said.
Although mass gatherings will be limited to 10 people indoors and 25 people outside under the new order, Cooper said these rules do not apply to religious gatherings. However, he said he hopes religious leaders and participants will keep safety measures in mind.
The modified safety rules for restaurants, which can open for dine-in service under the order, include making sure customers are standing six feet apart when waiting to be seated and keeping separate tables and seating six feet apart.
Additionally, NC Department of Health and Human Services guidelines recommend that only six people are sat per table with the exception of families, staff wear facial coverings and hand sanitizer be provided to patrons at restaurant entrances.
N.C. Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Dr. Mandy Cohen said the phase, which will last at least five weeks, will be more cautiously enacted than officials originally planned.
“We are moving to Phase 2, but we need to move in a more cautious way,” Cohen said. “Our rising case counts indicate that we need to take a more modest step than we originally planned. We need to be incredibly vigilant to slow the spread of the virus.”
Cohen said the state will be able to advance to Phase 2 on Friday due to further stabilization of four key indicators: hospitalizations, lab-confirmed cases, positive tests as a percentage of total tests and COVID-like syndromic cases.
Although Cohen said COVID-like syndromic cases and the percentage of positive test out of total tests performed are decreasing, the number of total laboratory-confirmed tests, which currently sits at 20,122, continues to increase. Cohen said this rise may be due to an increase in testing.
“This rise can be expected as we increase testing, but it also signals we need to take a cautious approach to stage two,” Cohen said.
The 422 new cases reported in the past day made for the lowest increase in the past week, but Cohen said she is closely monitoring this metric in light of the pandemic-high 853 case increase reported on May 16.
“I would’ve liked to see this trend starting to level, but it has not yet done that,” she said.
With 554 North Carolinians currently hospitalized for COVID-19, Cohen said the state's hospitalizations are overall stable. She said she is still confident in N.C. hospitals’ ability to handle a potential uptake in hospitalizations.
As of 12:15 p.m. May 20, 277,603 COVID-19 tests have been performed statewide. Cohen said increases in testing also indicate the state is ready to move into Phase 2.
“In the past week we’ve made significant progress expanding testing, ranging from 8,000 to over 12,000 tests a day,” Cohen said.
Cohen said the state is hoping to expand testing.
“We’re working with counties as well as partners from the private sector to continue to expand access to testing across the whole state,” Cohen said.
Cohen and Cooper said that in-person tracing would be crucial to continue tracking the virus, especially through Phase 2. Cohen said these tracers will support local health department staff, who she said are “experts” in contact tracing.
“We’re also being very intentional that the tracers who are hired reflect the diversity of the communities they serve,” Cohen said.
Cohen said it is important to remember the three W's —wear, wait and wash— to maintain utmost safety in the coming phase. Cooper said now more than ever, people should consider wearing facial coverings when going out.
“The face covering is more about protecting other people from your germs in case you have the virus and just don’t know it yet,” Cooper said. “A face covering signifies strength and compassion for others. Wearing one means that you actually care about other peoples’ health.”
Orange County has 289 reported cases and 37 deaths due to COVID-19 as of 12:15 p.m. May 20, which puts the county at 20 deaths per 10,000 residents. Although county and municipal governments must enforce at least what is provisioned in state guidance, Cooper said they can choose to enact more strict regulations.
“As with previous orders, these restrictions are a floor,” Cooper said. “Local governments may enact more strict rules if health officials and local leaders believe it’s in their best interest and in the best interest of the health of their communities.”
Although Cooper said the state is still proceeding with caution into Phase 2 and monitoring these health-related metrics, he said he is confident the state is ready to move into this phase and closer to economic recovery.
“I think where we are right now is a good place to be,” Cooper said.
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