Restaurants will reopen at reduced capacity because of the coronavirus, but bars, gyms, and movie theaters to remain closed.
Starting Friday at 5 pm in North Carolina, you’ll be able to sit down to eat in a restaurant or get your haircut, but you won’t be able to go to a bar, the gym or a movie.
Gov. Roy Cooper announced Wednesday that, as of Friday afternoon, more of the state’s businesses will be able to reopen, as key measures like hospital capacity, the number of patients complaining of COVID-like symptoms and the percentage of patients testing positive have all been decreasing or remaining stable.
As of Wednesday, North Carolina has seen more than 20,000 cases, with more than 700 deaths and 554 patients currently hospitalized. Mandy Cohen, N.C. Secretary of Health and Human Services, said the overall number of cases is still going up, and over the weekend the state had its highest one-day total of confirmed infections at more than 800.
That means the state will continue to shutter the types of businesses where more than 10 people are likely to gather.
“Many of these places are indoors, and with people close to each other and touching items, where the spread of the virus can occur,” Cooper said in a live-streaming press conference on Wednesday.
The Phase 2 limit for meeting outdoors is 25, and outdoor playgrounds will remain closed.
“Our rising case counts mean that we need to take a more modest step in order to slow the spread of the virus,” said Cohen. “This increase is expected, because we’re also doing more testing. But we need to move in a more cautious way.”
While lifting the state’s stay-at-home order, Cooper dubbed Phase 2 “Safer-at-Home.”
“I think this step we’re taking today will boost our economy,” said Cooper. “But people need to remember that you are safer staying at home. Just because you can go more places doesn’t mean you always should. When people gather together, one person can be the spark that can spread the fire to many.”
Based on a recent court order, religious communities will be exempt from the 10-person indoor limit, but Cooper said they should still use it as a recommended guideline.
“You hear about the ones that aren’t, but the vast, vast majority of congregations across North Carolina are doing the right things to protect their members,” Cooper said. “I hope that congregations and leaders throughout North Carolina will think twice about what they’re doing, will look at these recommendations and follow them for the health and safety of their congregations.”
In a statement sent to media after the Phase 2 announcement, Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, a Republican representing Guilford and Rockingham counties, ripped the Democratic governor, saying he had asked to reopen restaurants and personal care services like barbershops days ago.
“North Carolina had more cases, more hospitalizations and fewer tests performed than when I issued my call last week,” Berger said. “It seems strange that it was unsafe to reopen last week, but it’s safe to reopen now with worse numbers. What strategy is driving the governor’s actions? What goal does he think is achievable?”
Cooper has repeatedly said that state health officials need to watch the trends over weeks and months because someone infected with coronavirus can take up to two weeks to show symptoms.
“We know that there are more COVID-19 cases than are being reported,” Cooper said. “We have a steady number and a decreasing number on the percentage of positive tests.”
Cohen also said that even though the number of hospitalizations had increased minimally over the past few days, the state’s healthcare system still has plenty of capacity to treat patients, and that’s the more important number driving decisions.
“We recognize that those day-over-day counts are increasing slightly, but we never experienced a surge or a spike in cases. When you don’t see a spike, you don’t see a decline,” said Cohen, the state’s chief public health expert. “We want to keep an eye on it. We want to take a more modest step forward than we were originally planning.”
In his own media release, Republican House Speaker Tim Moore of Cleveland County said the state’s rulemaking needs to differentiate among cities and rural areas in order to get more people back to work quickly.
“North Carolina’s reopening has lagged our neighboring competitors for too long,” said Moore.
Cooper acknowledged that “this virus has upended life for many North Carolinians. Most are doing their best to follow the orders and doing their best to keep their family and members safe. I think many of them will welcome this cautious move into Phase II.”
“Most businesses are open now,” Cooper added. “We’re down to a few businesses where we know that the spread of the virus can likely occur. We want very much to be able to start school in August. There are a lot of plans being made about how that can be done. “
“We can only help our economy when people have confidence in their own safety,” Cooper said. “I think we’re going to see people be able to go in and to feel safe in doing this.”
Phase 2 requires restaurants to operate at 50% capacity, with strict sanitation protocols. They will also be required to maintain social distancing of 6 feet between employees and groups of customers. Cloth masks are recommended but not required.
“There is a strong desire by the restaurants that they want to do this right because they know that safety precautions will be good for business,” Cooper said.
Two bills in the General Assembly propose to allow another 50% of a restaurant’s capacity to sit outdoors, but that is not currently included in Cooper’s order, slated to run through June 26.
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