Image via NC DPS pool photographer. Gov. Roy Cooper says NC will begin to reopen Friday afternoon.
Image via NC DPS pool photographer.

Restaurants and salons cleared to reopen as of 5 p.m. Friday, but Gov. Cooper urges caution over Memorial Day weekend. 

Coronavirus cases might still be rising in North Carolina, but Gov. Roy Cooper characterized his plan to gradually reopen NC Friday as a “cautious step forward.”

Cooper’s Phase 2 of relaxed social distancing goes into effect at 5 p.m. Friday, opening salons, pools and restaurants at 50% capacity. Bars, gyms and playgrounds will remain closed for the time being.

The governor urged North Carolinians, however, to be cautious over the Memorial Day weekend, which is typically a time for pools, cookouts and parties. 

“The desire to gather with friends and family is really strong,” Cooper told reporters. “I want you to have a great time, but be careful.”

RELATED: NC Will Loosen COVID Restrictions Today. But A Top Epidemiologist Calls The State’s Trends ‘Worrisome.’

Cooper has been under pressure from some to reopen swiftly to try to alleviate an ailing economy. On Friday, state officials reported NC’s unemployment rate soared to 12.2%. According to the Charlotte Business Journal, that’s the first time in almost a decade that unemployment hit double-digits in NC, dating back to 2011 when the state was still reeling from a major recession. 

And the state’s unemployment office has been besieged with complaints about long wait times or a lack of responses. NC’s unemployment program, which was transformed by Republican lawmakers in 2013, is also one of the stingiest in the nation.

At the same time, Cooper is under pressure from those who say that, with the dangerous virus still booming in North Carolina, it is too soon to drop social distancing practices.

“It’s worrisome for me to see the case count increasing every week,” Pia MacDonald, senior director of public health research at RTI International, told Cardinal & Pine Thursday. “They’ve been increasing in North Carolina rather than stabilizing or decreasing. That’s a worrisome trend.”

On Friday morning, the state confirmed 21,618 cases in the state, and 728 deaths. New cases have been surging in the last week, but so has testing. 

Cooper and NC Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen emphasized Friday that they believe the state is on the right track, even as the governor dismissed criticism from those who pointed to neighboring states like Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee, states that dropped their restrictions much earlier or didn’t roll them out at all. 

“It would be irresponsible to remove all restrictions at once,” Cooper said. “Clearly that’s a situation that could result in a massive spike in COVID-19.”

RELATED: Some NC Kids Don’t Have Internet Access. Here’s What Lawmakers Want To Do About It.

And while she didn’t criticize Cooper’s office directly, MacDonald, who was one of several epidemiologists advising the governor on coronavirus policy in April, said the state should be concerned because the percentage of tests coming back positive in North Carolina remains relatively stable, between 7 and 8%. A lowered percentage would indicate fewer people circulating the virus in the community.

She also talked about the risks for asymptomatic people or people without health care access.

“We’re only as safe as our least safe person in any community,” MacDonald said. “The fact that we have these flare ups that are so concentrated is very dangerous because while the exposure may be happening at the workplace, people are going home with it and exposing other people.” 

But Cooper officials said they believe NC business owners are ready for the pickup in traffic, pointing to their new Count On Me NC initiative, training businesses and their employees for returning to work. The project is a DHHS partnership with leaders in the NC Restaurant & Lodging Association (NCRLA) and NC State Extension. 

It includes training programs for various types of businesses, as well as “front of house” and “back of house” restaurant staffers. Officials said 3,500 businesses with an estimated 10,000 employees have participated in the project as of this week. 

“Restaurants are a major part of our economy,” said Cooper. “And this virus has been tough on them.”

Asked by a reporter if he would be “comfortable” dining in at a restaurant this weekend, the governor said “yes.”

“I would feel comfortable,” said Cooper. “I would certainly want that restaurant to be following all of the personal safety rules and doing everything they can to prevent the transfer of COVID-19. We hope that people will feel safe enough to go to the restaurants throughout our state.”

NCRLA President Lynn Minges told reporters Friday that Count On Me NC “conveys a sense of mutual responsibility” among businesses and consumers. 

“Customers will appreciate the commitment that our businesses are making,” said Minges.