Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday said some local governments in North Carolina can begin easing mask mandates. Gov. Roy Cooper
Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday said some local governments in North Carolina can begin easing mask mandates.

Cooper joins several other Democratic governors who’ve eased COVID restrictions, but many health experts warn it may be too soon.

With COVID cases continuing to fall across the state, Gov. Roy Cooper encouraged all school districts and local governments on Thursday to end any remaining mask mandates. 

Masks are highly effective at stopping the spread of all versions of the coronavirus, but since the Omicron variant is often less severe, and vaccinations are both widely available and highly effective against it, Cooper said, it was time for people to decide for themselves about masks and no longer be directed by local authorities.

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“We’ve learned how to protect ourselves and each other from serious illness,” Cooper said in a news conference Thursday afternoon. “Now we take a positive step on mask requirements to help us move safely toward a more normal day-to-day life. I know we all want that.” 

The statewide mask mandate ended in July of 2021, but NC health officials had until now strongly urged that schools keep mask measures in place. That guidance will formally change on March 7, Cooper said. Health care settings, prisons, and public transportation would keep masking requirements in place, he said. 

“This pandemic has been difficult for all of us,” Cooper said. “It’s been particularly tough on parents, teachers and schoolchildren. It’s time to focus on getting our children a good education and improving our schools no matter how you feel about masks.”

Both Cooper and Kody Kinsley, the secretary of the NC Department of Health and Human Services, said they would continue to wear masks in crowded public places, and acknowledged many people might not be ready to throw their masks away. 

“Parents might still want their children wearing a mask inside schools,” Cooper said, “Businesses might want their employees and their customers to still wear a mask.”

He added: “Learning how to live with this virus is a reality we all continue to face.”

Is It Too Soon?

Some health experts, however, say it may be too soon to ease mask protocols across the board. While vaccines and boosters supply ample protection against serious illness and helped drive the numbers down, immunocompromised people and those who are unvaccinated are still square in the virus’ crosshairs. 

Cooper joins several other Democratic governors across the country who have eased COVID measures. Many of those states, including New York, Connecticut, Nevada and Illinois, had far lower numbers when they made their moves than NC does.

While the cases here are down, they are not low. State health officials have long said that a sustained 5% or lower positive COVID test rate is the benchmark for easing restrictions. The rate on Thursday was 10.6%. On July 21, the day Cooper ended the state mandate, there were 871 new cases, 672 hospitalizations and a 7.3% positivity rate. On Thursday, NC reported 5,583 new cases and 2,711 hospitalizations.

The big difference between then and now, Cooper said, is vaccinations. Some 71% of the adult population in NC has at least two doses of the vaccine, compared to 46.6% last July. But only 51% have gotten their booster shots.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the country’s top health officials, has warned that overconfidence at this stage could come back to bite us.

Still, he acknowledged in an interview with Reuters on Thursday that COVID fatigue and the mental health issues these last two years have unleashed are concerns too, and a balance must be reached for, even if it can yet be reached.

“Is the impact on mental health, is the impact on development of kids, is the impact on schools – is that balanced against trying to be totally pristine and protecting against infection? I don’t have the right answer to that,” he said.