RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper has signed an executive order to move North Carolina into Phase 1 of easing COVID-19-related restrictions beginning this Friday, May 8.
Under Phase 1, most businesses can open, retail stores can open at 50 percent capacity, parks and trails are encouraged to reopen, close-contact businesses (such as gyms, salons and movie theaters) will remain closed, restaurants will continue to be open for takeout and delivery only, and gatherings are still limited to 10 people, but gathering outdoors with friends is allowed.
The order removes the distinction between essential and non-essential businesses. Retail businesses allowed to open at 50 percent capacity will be required to direct customers to stand six feet apart, perform frequent cleanings, provide hand sanitizer when available, screen workers for symptoms and more. The order allows people to leave their homes for commercial activity at any business that is open.
All workers at retail and other businesses are recommended to wear cloth face coverings, and the order encourages cloth face coverings to be worn when outside the home and in contact with others, according to the governor’s office. Teleworking is still encouraged for businesses that can practice it.
“Because the combination of our indicators tell us that our trends are mostly decreasing or leveling, I have signed an executive order to move North Carolina into Phase 1 of easing restrictions,” Cooper said at a press briefing on May 5. “I want to be clear — North Carolina’s stay-at-home order will remain in place. But it will be modified to allow for more reasons for people to leave home and to allow for more commercial activity.”
The order begins at 5 p.m. this Friday, May 8, and expires May 22. Cooper said that if North Carolina’s metrics were not improving by the time the order expires, the state will remain in Phase 1.
“COVID-19 is still a serious threat to our state, and Phase 1 is designed to be a limited easing of restrictions that can boost parts of our economy while keeping important safety rules in place,” Cooper said in a statement. “This is a careful and deliberate first step, guided by the data, and North Carolinians still must use caution while this virus is circulating.”
The governor and N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen on April 23 announced the plan for a three-phased reopening of the state and lifting of restrictions put in place since March by the governor’s executive orders.
Cohen said state leaders were eyeing four key metrics as it made decisions about lifting restrictions: the trajectory of COVID-like illness reported over 14 days, the trajectory of new lab-confirmed cases over 14 days, the percentage of tests conducted that are positive and the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19. N.C. leaders also aimed to double the number of tests conducted per day, to double the number of contact tracers at local health departments to 500 statewide and to increase the availability of personal protective equipment to at least at 30-day supply.
Cohen described the trajectory of COVID-like illness and percentage of positive tests to be decreasing, hospitalizations to be level and new cases to be slightly increasing. Testing has doubled, contact tracers are being hired and PPE supply chains have improved with the exception of gowns, she said.
In her remarks at the May 5 press briefing, Cohen concluded that overall, North Carolina’s COVID-19 trends were “stable,” and that the state is not seeing significant downward trajectories in most metrics because the state was successful at preventing a peak.
“We’re not perfect, but we’re stable,” Cohen said.
“We still want you to stay home,” Cohen added. “If you’re sick you should definitely be staying home.”
She encouraged anyone leaving home to follow the three Ws: “Wear a face covering, wash your hands, and wait six feet apart.”
Cohen also mentioned a report released by NCDHHS on May 5 concluding that more than half (51.1 percent) of North Carolina adults are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 because they are 65 or older, have at least one underlying health condition or both.
In a statement responding to the announcement, Republican Senate Leader Phil Berger said, "Gov. Cooper’s announcement today is largely a continuation of the existing lockdown. We were told 'flattening the curve' to prevent overloading hospitals justified a lockdown. Hospitals are not overloaded, and in fact they’re laying people off.
"So what is the theory to support this plan — eliminate infections or just delay them?" Berger said. "Today in North Carolina, over half of our counties comprise less than 10 percent of confirmed cases. Why is a blanket, one-size-fits-all statewide order justified? I’m concerned that Gov. Cooper is ignoring more reasonable approaches and the experiences of the majority of states."