On Friday, Feb. 26, Gov. Roy Cooper will lift his modified stay-at-home order, which put into effect a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew among North Carolinians and businesses not deemed essential. The governor announced at a press conference Wednesday more businesses will be able to operate, some for the first time and others with increased capacity.
His decision comes after Covid-19 numbers have continued a downward trend across the state over the last month, bringing its percent positive rate between 6% or 7%, closer to health officials’ 5% goal.
“We are only lifting one restriction,” Cooper clarified. “We still have other capacity restrictions in place because we know the virus is still here.”
According to executive order 195, bars will be able to flip on the open sign for indoor service again. Bars can open at 30% capacity with a cap of 250. Cooper also extended onsite alcohol sales to 11 p.m. rather than the previously capped 9 p.m. that went into effect mid-December.
Outdoor bars can operate at 50% capacity now and without the 100-person limit.
“It’s the first time bars have been able to open indoors since the pandemic began,” Cooper said.
He pointed to science and data — not lobbying from bars or sports associations — as showing the time is right to begin loosening the grip on businesses. Cooper applauded North Carolinians for taking great measures and making sacrifices to get to this point.
“And we are depending on people to continue to be responsible,” he said. “The mandatory mask mandate will not change. Gatherings still should be socially distanced.”
Cooper increased outdoor intimate gatherings from 25 to 50 people in his executive order.
Restaurants, breweries and wineries, retail shops, gyms, museums, aquariums, barbers and personal care businesses, pools and outdoor amusement parks all can operate at 50% capacity.
Outdoor sports fields and venues, like concert amphitheaters, that were operating at 30% capacity no longer will have a 100-person cap.
Indoor amusement parks, movie theaters and sports arenas also will be able to operate at a 30% capacity or 250 people at most. However, larger indoor arenas that can hold more than 5,000 people can operate at 15% and must follow additional Covid-19 safety measures.
Officials still encourage remote working as much as possible rather than in office environments, pointing to extended indoor gatherings as a concerning factor in viral spread.
“If we see more viral spread, we will reassess as we go,” N.C.’s top health official Dr. Mandy Cohen said. “This is the right step at this moment — to ease these restrictions — but we have to be aware of the variants now in our state.”
Cohen said N.C. has begun sending a good deal of samples to the CDC as part of its $200 million initiative to test for how much of the Covid-19 variant could be in the states. She noted results will be posted for N.C. on the CDC dashboard.
“While we are slowing the spread and saving lives,” Cohen said, “at the same time, we face a new challenge: The new Covid-19 variants are a wildcard.”
Covid-19 metrics have fallen back to pre-Thanksgiving numbers in hospitalizations, case counts and deaths. The County Alert System went from 61 counties colored red to 27 in the last two weeks. New Hanover is back in the yellow (significant spread), while Brunswick and Pender have fallen into orange (substantial spread).
“Numbers are still high but significantly better than they were a month ago,” Cohen said. “New case levels are back to October’s numbers. Cases have been declining since the peak on January 10.”
Cooper attributed some of this significant improvement as a testament to N.C. getting vaccines in arms.
“More than half of those 65 and older have been vaccinated,” he said, not to mention opening Group 3 today to education staff.
A third vaccine, Johnson and Johnson, will possibly be approved this weekend by the FDA, according to Cohen. “We hope by the end of next week we will have more clear parameters and a timeline on getting [the Johnson and Johnson] vaccine,” she said.
“Easing restrictions will only work if we continue protecting each other and follow health and safety protocols,” Cooper said.
Officials said taking a “dimmer switch” approach to reopening the state is the right move.
“We are still far from the end of the pandemic, especially with vaccine still in short supply,” Cooper added. “Today’s action is a show of confidence and trust but we must remain cautious. . . . Carelessness could lead to a backslide.”
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