RALEIGH — North Carolina will remain paused in Phase 3 for the next three weeks, Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Wednesday, Oct. 21.
“Because several of our trends are moving in the wrong direction, North Carolina will remain paused in Phase 3 for the next three weeks,” Cooper said. “We hope that greater enforcement, strong community leadership and more people doing the right things can lower these numbers.
“It’s critical that we take this time to focus on the basics — wear a mask, wash your hands, wait six feet apart from other people,” the governor continued. “These are the habits that helped lower our numbers over the summer, and they are still our best tools.”
Cooper’s announcement followed a brief presentation by N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen, who noted that the numbers of daily new cases have been on the rise in the state over the past few weeks, reaching new peaks on Thursday and Friday of last week.
“We have now surpassed our previous peak that occurred in July,” Cohen said.
She also characterized the numbers of patients presenting with COVID-19-like symptoms and the percentage of tests that are positive as stable, but “still too high.” And while hospitalizations have been increasing statewide, there is still capacity, but some smaller hospitals are feeling strained, she said.
“This has been a really hard year,” Cohen said. “I understand how much everyone wants to be with family and friends without having to worry about a virus. As hard as this is, it will end. We will get through this.”
But “ignoring the virus does not make it go away,” she added. “Wearing a mask is not about how well you know someone. When you’re with someone you don’t live with, wear a mask over your mouth and nose.”
On Tuesday, Oct. 20, Cohen and Secretary of Department of Public Safety Erik Hooks sent a letter to local officials in communities with increased viral spread urging their continued action in fighting COVID-19 and suggesting additional measures to mitigate its spread.
According to the governor’s office, the letter was sent to county and municipal leaders in 36 counties, including Watauga and Avery, that met the following metrics: the county has had 300 or more new cases in the last 14 days and has been identified by the White House Task Force as a county of concern; the rate of cases is greater than 50 cases per 10,000 people; or the county is one of the three most populous in the state.
In addition to sharing resources to encourage people to wear a mask, wait six feet apart and wash hands, the letter outlined local actions to consider that have less severe penalties for violating COVID-19 executive orders than what is available through the state-level emergency powers.
While the penalty for violating the state-level executive order is limited to criminal citations, which could result in imprisonment, city and county governments can create ordinances that carry more flexible consequences such as civil fines, the governor’s office stated. Examples of local actions include:
• Adopting an ordinance that imposes a civil penalty for violating its provisions.
• Issuing a local emergency proclamation setting higher standards to address the COVID-19 pandemic, such as imposing fines for businesses that do not enforce the mask requirements; establishing lower mass gathering limits; curtailing the sale of alcohol earlier than 11 p.m.; closing high-risk venues such as bars and night spots; and limiting restaurant service.
• Supporting the local health director to issue and enforce an Imminent Hazard Abatement Order against entities whose actions, including failure to comply with the governor’s executive order, present an imminent hazard to the community.
In response to a question about the letter, AppHealthCare spokesperson Melissa Bracey on Oct. 26 said that “a small group of community leaders from Watauga County meet briefly each week to review current data trends. We use that time to talk about what trends we are seeing and any concerning patterns, as well as what prevention measures need to be promoted.
“In the past week, thankfully, we have seen a decline in the rate of new cases. However, we know that this is a fragile measure that can easily trend back upwards if we are not all remaining vigilant in our efforts to prevent the spread of this virus,” Bracey said. “Currently, our plan is to continue to promote prevention, which was also underscored in the letter, while continuing discussions about any future considerations that may be necessary should we see our metrics go in the wrong direction.”