A demonstrator in Raleigh advocates for social distancing and masks. After weeks of pressure, Gov. Cooper ordered a mask rule Wednesday. (Image via Shutterstock) Roy Cooper orders mandatory mask rule.
A demonstrator in Raleigh advocates for social distancing and masks. After weeks of pressure, Gov. Cooper ordered a mask rule Wednesday. (Image via Shutterstock)

The order follows weeks of growing coronavirus cases, which spurred pressure from health care experts to make mask recommendations into a requirement.

Headed out? Grab a mask. You now have to. 

Gov. Roy Cooper issued a statewide indoor and outdoor mask mandate for the state Wednesday, his administration’s latest attempt to contain the highly infectious novel coronavirus that has already claimed the lives of 1,271 people in the state. 

“This is something that we need to do to slow the spread and move the economy forward, which is something that we all want to do,” Cooper said. 

Cooper and his top health official, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen, have strongly urged the state’s residents to don masks from early on in the pandemic, but turned those strong suggestions into a mandate Wednesday after seeing the state’s COVID-19 numbers climb. 

Cooper also announced Wednesday he would hold off on moving into the next stage of a three-part reopening phase, effectively keeping bars, personal fitness centers, playgrounds, museums and movie theaters shuttered for at least the next three weeks.

North Carolina added more than 1,700 new COVID-19 cases over the last day, the second-highest single day tally since the pandemic began. 

Hospitals too are breaking undesirable records. As of Wednesday, the state had 906 people hospitalized because of COVID-19, down slightly from the day before when it peaked at 915 occupancy. 

“Doctors and healthcare experts have warned that hospital capacity can be overwhelmed in the blink of an eye,” Cooper said. “And once we see that capacity is gone. It can be too late to reverse the tide.” 

The New Rules

The mask requirement means that all retail businesses need to have their employees and customers wear masks. Workers at construction sites, in meatpacking plants and elsewhere will need to wear masks. Also, law enforcement can issue violations to businesses who are willfully ignoring the new requirement, Cooper said. 

Those exercising outside won’t need to necessarily don a mask, as long as physical distance of 6 feet can be maintained from others, Cooper said. Children under 11 and those with medical issues preventing the use of masks are also exempted from the new rule.  

Many North Carolinians seem to agree with Cooper on his approach — 55% of North Carolinians believe restrictions on gyms, movie theaters and bars should stay, according to a poll released Thursday of 1,157 voters by Public Policy Polling. The poll also found that 79% felt wearing masks was important. 

North Carolina’s climbing COVID-19 cases have put the state in the undesirable grouping of largely Southern states that have been unable to slow the spread of the highly contagious virus. And while more populous states like Florida and Texas are seeing the virus spread more rapidly, North Carolina is far from being in a secure situation. 

A trio of Northeastern states – New York, New Jersey and Connecticut – announced today that visitors from North Carolina and other states with high infection rates would have to quarantine for two weeks. 

Pressure to Reopen

Cooper made his announcement as he faces pressure to reopen the state even with climbing numbers of infections and hospital beds filling up with COVID-19 patients. 

The economy in the state, like elsewhere in the nation, is still teetering with little sign of easing up.  More than 1 million North Carolinians, amounting to more than 20% of the state’s workforce, have applied for unemployment since COVID-19 reached the state this spring, according to data kept by the N.C. Division of Employment Security

It’s left the state with a 12.9% unemployment rate, far higher than anything experienced during the Great Recession.  

And the state legislature, where Republican leaders are frequent sparring partners with Cooper, a Democrat, have fired back at the governor with attempts to try to mandate reopening.  

State lawmakers sent Cooper two bills this week that would allow towns to hold Fourth of July gatherings, parades and fireworks and mandate the re-opening of  amusement parks and fairs. 

But it’s likely those bills will get Cooper’s veto stamp, as did prior bills the legislature passed that would have allowed bars, gyms and fitness centers.