As NC Passes 19,000 COVID-19 Cases, Gov. Cooper Promises Midweek Decision on Reopening

The head of the NC Black Alliance applauded Gov. Cooper's veto of a controversial police records bill after days of protest.

By Sarah Ovaska

May 18, 2020

Cooper’s administration facing pressure from some Republicans to reopen the economy, but public health experts urge caution. 

Is North Carolina ready to do away with its stay-at-home order and reopen restaurants and hair salons? Gov. Roy Cooper says he’ll make a decision midweek. 

“We’re hoping this can happen and we’re going to continue to look at the indicators,” Cooper said in a media briefing Monday afternoon.

As of Monday, North Carolina has had 19,023 people test positive for the novel coronavirus, about 7% of the total tests given, and lost 661 people to the disease, according to data provided by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services

Most of those killed by the infectious diseases have been older, with 85% of deaths in those over age 65. COVID-19 has also taken a disproportionate toll on communities of color, with 35% of deaths and 33% of positive cases among Black North Carolinians.   

The numbers of positive COVID-19 cases spiked over the last five days, including 853 new positive cases that came in a single day, the highest number the state has seen since the pandemic began, although that increase coincided with a rise in the number of tests administered. 

“Any increase like this is concerning and a reminder of how quickly the virus can spread,” said Mandy Cohen, Cooper’s secretary for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. 

Cooper and Cohen are looking at the percentage of positive cases, which has hovered at around 7% for the past week. The recent surge in cases may be the result of having more testing capabilities, and not an indication that the virus is spreading at a faster clip throughout the state, Cohen said. 

Phase 2 On The Horizon?

The state entered the first of three planned stages May 8 to ease out of the stringent measures Cooper and his top health official, Cohen, put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19.  One of the nation’s leading COVID forecasters cautioned last week that easing of restrictions was too premature. 

The first phase under Cooper’s executive order urged people to continue to stay at home but allowed non-essential retail businesses and state parks to open. The next phase, Phase 2, could lift that stay at home order and also allow barbers, nail salons, dine-in restaurants, community pools and more to open, as long as people donned their masks and adhered to recommendations to stay 6 feet away from others. 

Cooper could move to that stage as soon as Friday, before the Memorial Day weekend. 

He cautioned that he’ll use the health care data to guide him.

“Public health and safety are number one,” Cooper said. “We’re going to continue to keep that at the top of the list.” 

Cooper is facing enormous pressure to move to reopen, as people tire of being cooped up. Unemployed workers are also eager to start bringing in paychecks again, especially given backlogs in state unemployment claims that have left some waiting two months or more for assistance.

The political aspect of this fight is here in North Carolina as well, with Republican politicians like Lt. Gov. Dan Forest (who is challenging Cooper, a Democrat, in the November election) and state Sen. Phil Berger questioning many of Cooper’s moves. Weekly protests have also come from groups pushing for eased restrictions. A federal judge agreed Friday with a group of church leaders who felt Cooper’s ban against indoor church services went too far. 

Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger at the podium. Image via screenshot.

In a press conference Monday held before the state legislature comes back into session, Berger indicated he’d like to see a more regional approach, with fewer restrictions for rural areas that aren’t seeing large numbers of cases. More efforts could be focused on congregate living locations, such as nursing homes or prisons, where outbreaks have been fast-moving and deadly. 

“That doesn’t mean that everyone in the state needs to be in a situation where they are unable to get around,” Berger said. 

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