North Carolina will stay in Phase 2 of Governor Roy Cooper’s coronavirus reopening plan until July 17, with an additional facial covering requirement in public spaces where social distance cannot be maintained.
The executive order extending the phase, which Cooper said he signed today due to rising case numbers and hospitalizations, builds on a previous order signed May 22 that put the phase’s initial expiration on June 26.
"North Carolina overall has done well, in fact we have avoided a surge in N.C. and that is a positive thing," Cooper said. "But seeing these numbers go up like they are now, it's important that we step up and put a pause."
Under the order, local law enforcement can cite businesses for failing to have employees or customers wear facial coverings, and customers who refuse to wear masks can also be cited under trespassing and other laws.
Cooper said the mask requirement comes in light of recent studies indicating the effectiveness of facial coverings.
Dine-in restaurants, retail stores, salons, barbershops and swimming pools will continue to be able to be open at half capacity. Other businesses, like gyms, bars and public playgrounds, will continue to remain closed.
Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, said recent increases in four key indicators, hospitalizations, lab-confirmed cases, positive tests as a percentage of total tests and COVID-like syndromic cases, prompted this phase extension.
"These concerning trends remind us, if left unchecked, the virus will continue to spread," Cohen.
On June 23, 915 people were hospitalized with the coronavirus, the highest recorded number of N.C. hospitalizations since the pandemic began.
Cooper said since May 19, the percent of people hospitalized has increased by 56 percent. At the briefing, Cooper quoted Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who cautioned N.C. leaders to act and "blunt" the increases of cases in the past weeks.
Cohen said these hospitalizations, which are counted the same despite case severity, can be countered by preventative measures, like mask usage.
"The issue is that what we have been seeing for more than a month is that every day we have been in this slow and steady increase in hospitalizations," Cohen said.
The final two metrics — the percent of tests positive and number of COVID-like syndromic cases — continues to be elevated, Cohen said. She said the state would like to see positive tests at a level closer to 5%.
"It indicates the virus is still very prevalent in our state," Cohen said.
COVID-like syndromic cases, the first metric she mentioned, have increased in the past week. "This upward trend is concerning," Cohen said.
NCDHHS has reported 791,285 tests performed since the pandemic began. Cohen said despite continued increases in contact tracing, testing and PPE manufacturing, the state will look to expand these efforts, especially as case count continues to increase.
"We have a lot of work ahead of us in terms of additional testing and tracing," Cohen said.
Cooper said the extension of three weeks is necessary for health professionals to evaluate the effects of the mask restriction.
"The health experts need that period of time in order to analyze the trends and the data we are seeing," Cooper said.
Cooper said he urges lawmakers to not override a bill he previously vetoed that would open gyms and bars across the state. He said these "riskier" businesses may open when this order expires on July 17, but for now, this "pause" is necessary to ensure a healthy and safe North Carolina.
"The numbers we see are a stark warning, and we must pay attention," Cooper said.
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