Masks Can Come Off in Most Places in NC, Gov. Cooper Announces

A vaccination clinic in Wake County this week (Pool photo by Robert Willett/News & Observer)

By Michael McElroy

May 14, 2021

Gov. Roy Cooper rolled back many of the pandemic restrictions, while calling on unvaccinated people to wear masks until they get their shots. 

Gov. Roy Cooper walked into a press conference Friday afternoon wearing a smile. He was not wearing a mask.

“Today I have great news to share with the people of North Carolina,” he said.

“Effective immediately,” he said, NC suspended limits on mass gatherings, social distancing requirements and most mask mandates.

“This is a big step forward in living our lives the way they were before the pandemic,” he said. “That’s good.”

Yes it is, Governor. Thank you, vaccines.

Cooper’s announcement followed updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the day before that vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks and no longer needed to keep away from others. Citing overwhelming evidence that vaccines are highly safe and effective at preventing infection, and less conclusive but still promising evidence that vaccinated people are unlikely to spread the disease to others, the CDC essentially tied getting the vaccine to resuming a normal life. (For now the NC mask mandate will still be in effect in schools and summer camps, on public transit, in doctors’ offices and other healthcare facilities, and in prisons.)

“Because of our strong safety protocols, vaccines and the hard work of North Carolinians, we have been able to slow the spread of this virus and reduce deaths,” Cooper said, “when other states saw surges in their cases.”

Pandemic Not Over

But, with only 51.2% of North Carolinian adults having at least one dose of the vaccine, both Cooper and Dr, Mandy Cohen, the state’s top health official, cautioned that the end of the mask mandate did not mean the end of the pandemic. 

“While today’s news means that we are even closer to putting this behind us, it doesn’t mean that we’re there yet,” Cooper said. “The pandemic is still here, especially for those who are not vaccinated.”

For the unvaccinated, the danger is the same as it ever was. And the invitation to resuming a somewhat normal life does not yet apply to them.

They must still wear masks, must still keep their distance, will still have to quarantine after coming into contact with someone testing positive for COVID. In some ways, the danger is even more acute for the unvaccianted, Cooper said. 

“With more people not wearing masks going forward and Covid 19 and its more infectious variants spreading, there’s a real risk that unvaccinated people can get it,” Cooper said. 

NC would continue its efforts to increase access to those who want the vaccine and to continue its outreach to those who are hesitant or outright hostile to the idea. While Cohen said that the state was looking at a “range of options” in potential incentives to those who get their vaccines, Cooper made a direct appeal.

“I have a message for people who have not been vaccinated, and especially for those who will choose not to wear a mask,” he said. “Get vaccinated now.”

“Please,” he added, “be responsible.”

Though the state will no longer insist on masks, businesses and local cities can still require them, Cohen said. And all businesses, Cohen added, should post signs reminding unvaccinated people to keep distance on their own and wear face coverings.

Starbucks, Home Depot and other national brands have said they will continue to require masks of customers and employees. The NC-based grocery store chain, Harris Teeter, will also keep its mask mandate in place. But, other spots around the state have said they won’t require masks. 

Cabarrus Brewing Company and other NC business tweeted soon after Cooper’s announcement that while anyone who wants to can wear a mask, it would no longer require them.

The Triangle YMCA also said it would no longer require masks for vaccinated patrons. 

Still, Cohen said, masks are “strongly recommended for everyone regardless of vaccination status” in large indoor gatherings like concerts and sporting events, she said. 

Because caution is still needed: Not all of the COVID related metrics are trending in the right direction. 

Young people make up a huge portion of the state’s unvaccinated population.

“Young people are vulnerable to the Covid -19 virus, just like everyone else,” Cohen said, “and the percentage of covid cases in NC’s 17 and under has been increasing.” 

Now that 12-15 year olds are eligible for the Pfizer vaccine, Cohen said, the state is working with schools and pediatrician offices statewide to increase access to doses. 

Vaccine availability remains strong, she said. While you can find a provider and make an appointment by visiting, many providers no longer require an appointment and you can get a vaccine just by showing up.


  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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