Gov. Roy Cooper (left) and DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen (right) announced plans to begin lifting social distancing restrictions Friday.
Gov. Roy Cooper (left) and DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen (right) announced plans to begin lifting social distancing restrictions Friday.

Cooper’s move comes with cases still on the rise, but officials cite encouraging trends. 

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced a phased reopening plan starting this Friday, despite data that doesn’t show a clear decrease in the spread of COVID-19. 

The NC Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) reported 408 new cases and 22 deaths on Tuesday, bringing total cases above 12,000 and COVID-related deaths to 452. 

In April, DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen outlined several measures for deciding when the state is ready to reduce social-distancing. These include fewer clinic and emergency-room visitors with COVID-like symptoms; a lower percentage of positive tests and a smaller number of positive tests overall; a leveling trend on the number of patients who are hospitalized or die as a result of COVID-19; increases in daily testing and contact-tracing; and a steady supply of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers.

Even though most of these measures showed an uptick in the number of cases and deaths in the first few days of May, Cohen said the overall trend is encouraging. The DHHS secretary said North Carolina had thus far succeeded in flattening the curve, and that’s why most of the measures may move up and down with an overall level trend over time. 

“We aren’t seeing significant downward trends on our metrics, largely because we flattened the curve in the first place,” she said. “We have the hospital capacity we need, and that is good.”

Beginning Friday, Phase 1 of the loosening restrictions will allow non-essential businesses like clothing stores to reopen, and all retail shops will be able to increase to 50% customer-capacity, where they had been limited to 20%. 

Gathering places like bars and theaters and personal-care services like hair salons will remain closed at least until May 22, when this week’s executive order is set to expire. Gatherings will still Most groups still won’t be able to gather as more than 10 people or indoors, and restaurants will continue with take-out or delivery only. 

“They will have the opportunity to open and do more in Phase 2 when we get there,” Cooper said. “I know people are eager to work and eager to play, but I know people are also worried about how this virus could affect them and their families.”

Cooper said he expects schools and college campuses to reopen in the fall with strict hygiene plans and continued social-distancing. Unless the state has to reinstate stricter rules if COVID cases start to climb, Cooper said day-camps, but not overnight camps, will be allowed to open this summer.

During a teleconference for the media on Tuesday, Cohen offered data showing more than half of all adults in North Carolina are at high risk from COVID-19 because of age or an underlying health condition. Nearly half of those ages 50-64 have one of those conditions. 

Cooper praised the state’s citizens for altering their lives to protect others.

“The good news is, your work has prevented an overwhelming spike in infections,” he said. “You are looking out for your neighbors. Even though we are not physically together with other people, we are in this together.” 

Asked by a reporter whether Tuesday’s partial relaxing of the rules arose out of pressure from ReOpen NC protesters, the governor insisted the decision is grounded in public-health data. 

“We are basing these decisions only on the evidence, the science and the facts and the determinants that we have set forth,” Cooper said. “Health officials are driving when we make decisions about moving into phases. If our indicators are not in the right place, we’ll extend Phase 1 longer. If we really began to see a surge, then we could go backwards. We can only boost our economy when people have confidence in their safety.”

Cooper added that, in an effort to preserve First Amendment rights, the state is allowing protesters and worshippers to gather in groups of more than 10 as long as it’s outdoors with 6 feet of social distancing. 

Even though violating COVID-19 rules is technically a misdemeanor, Cooper said local police have generally been giving warnings and encouraging citizens to exercise safety precautions. 

“For the most part, North Carolinians have been pretty good about abiding by restrictions,” Cooper said. “We have to be cautious and methodical. We’ve got to save people’s lives.”