Top Cooper Official: NC Will ‘Walk Back’ Eased Restrictions If Coronavirus Surges Again

NC DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen (at the podium) addresses the coronavirus May 5 in Raleigh as Gov. Roy Cooper looks on. (Photo via DHHS pool photographer)

By Billy Ball

May 13, 2020

Top official in Gov. Cooper’s administration addresses concerns of a new COVID-19 spike, amid surge in Charlotte.

Hours after an unreleased White House coronavirus report listed North Carolina’s largest city of Charlotte among the “locations to watch” in emerging COVID-19 infections, the state’s top healthcare official called for continued vigilance.

“We still see a lot of virus here,” NC Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said in a media briefing Wednesday afternoon. “We want to be sure that we’re not going to see a surge of cases.”

If there is a surge, Cohen said the state could move backward on Gov. Roy Cooper’s plan to ease social distancing orders. The state moved into Phase 1 of lessened orders Friday and is expected to consider further lessening of those rules May 22

“We will walk back if we need to to protect the people of North Carolina,” Cohen said Wednesday.

Tuesday’s report from the White House task force cited emerging infections in the US away from initial hotspots in urban locales like New York City, with troubling trends particularly in cities and states that followed President Trump’s suggestion to lift restrictions entirely, locations such as Nashville, Tenn., and Des Moines, Iowa. 

Meanwhile, Charlotte was named among the “locations to watch” because it had seen an increase in confirmed cases of more than 200% over the previous week.

Cohen acknowledged the report Wednesday, but said North Carolina is in a different place than other states that reported an abrupt spike in cases last month and are now trending downward. Cohen said those states are still seeing a similar number of new cases as NC, although NC’s trend is more of a “leveling.” 

“How does North Carolina compare to something like New York given we had very different experiences in the March and April timeline?” she added. 

State officials in Cooper’s administration are mulling eased restrictions despite a high number of new cases every day, including 470 new cases from Tuesday to Wednesday. But there is a downward trend of positive tests as a percentage of total tests completed. 

The state has been boosting the number of tests completed each day, expanding from about 2,000 to 3,000 tests per day in early April to about 5,000 to 7,000 tests per day today. 

“We look at a number of metrics,” Cohen said. “Because we know that any one of those metrics can’t be looked at in isolation.”

Source: NC Department of Health and Human Services

Cooper emphasized Tuesday that May 22 would be the soonest that the state considers any more moves to loosen restrictions.

“We are going to rely on the science, the data and the facts that we have set out in order to tell us when we go into phase two,”  Cooper said in a media briefing Tuesday. “We know we need to boost the economy… but you can’t boost the economy until people have confidence in their safety.” 

Republican leadership in the NC General Assembly, and conservatives among ‘Reopen’ protesters, have been critical of the governor’s social distancing orders. 

(Cooper) “should explain what his administration’s overarching strategy is,” state Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger wrote in a series of Twitter posts Tuesday. 

“Is his strategic endgame to prevent much of the population from ever becoming infected? Does he believe that is possible? Or is his strategic endgame to manage the virus as it naturally spreads through the population, to protect the highest-risk groups while seeking herd immunity through the young + healthy first? We need a view into the administration’s thinking. What goal is driving Cooper’s policy decisions? What does he think is achievable?”

Despite their differences, Cooper and GOP lawmakers agreed on a $1.6 billion budget for spending federal coronavirus relief money this month, striking an unusually bipartisan tone.

Berger and conservatives have also been critical of Cooper’s restrictions on churches and places of worship. 

Berger’s office on Wednesday called on Cooper and Cohen to allow salons and barber shops to open, but Cohen urged North Carolinians to remain patient. 

“I know everyone wants a haircut, including me, but hold on a bit longer,” she said.

Cohen and Cooper are expected to delve into the next steps of lessening restrictions in a media briefing Thursday. Check back with Cardinal & Pine for updates. 


  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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