Cooper wearing a mask

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper arrives masked for a press briefing on the COVID-19 virus at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh.

RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper announced June 24 that due to North Carolina’s increasing COVID-19 numbers, the state will remain in Phase 2 of the statewide reopening plan for three more weeks, and face coverings will now be required to be worn in public.

Contingent on the state’s COVID-19 metrics, Phase 2 was originally planned to continue until June 26, when Phase 3 was set to begin, allowing the lifting of more COVID-19-related restrictions. But Cooper and N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen have repeatedly warned in recent weeks that North Carolina’s metrics — including numbers of new cases each day, the percentage of tests that are positive and daily numbers of people who are hospitalized with COVID-19 — have been moving in the wrong direction.

“The numbers we see are a stark warning, and I’m concerned. It’s clear that our numbers will keep us from moving ahead into the next phase of easing restrictions,” Cooper said at a press briefing. “This is not where we planned to be, or wanted to be. But it is one of two important decisions that we need to make to effectively fight this disease.”

According to Cooper, people must wear face coverings when in public places, indoors or outdoors, where physical distancing of six feet from other people who aren’t in the same household or residence isn’t possible. They will be required for all employees and customers of retail businesses and restaurants as well as workers in manufacturing, construction, meat processing and agriculture settings.

Exceptions include: people who should not wear masks due to medical and behavioral conditions; children under 11; people actively eating or drinking; people strenuously exercising; as well as other exceptions. To read an FAQ document about the new executive order and mask mandate, visit https://tinyurl.com/y86tkkzr.

The order does not allow law enforcement to criminally enforce the face covering requirement against individual workers, customers or patrons, but businesses or organizations that fail to enforce the requirement could be cited with a violation of the executive order, punishable by a class 2 misdemeanor. In addition, if someone refuses to leave after being barred entry by a business or organization due to not wearing a face covering, that person could be charged with trespassing.

“Overwhelming evidence that is growing by the week shows that wearing a face covering can greatly reduce the spread of COVID-19, especially from people who have it and don’t know it yet,” Cooper said. “This is a simple way to control this virus while we protect ourselves and the people around us. Required face coverings not only cause zero harm to our economy — they in fact help our economy by making it safer to shop, do business, and keep our small businesses running.

“We’re adding this new requirement because we don’t want to go backward,” Cooper added. “We want to stabilize our numbers so we can continue to safely ease restrictions, and most importantly, get our children back in school.”

Cooper noted that on June 23, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading infectious disease expert on the White House coronavirus task force, told a U.S. House committee that North Carolina could see an “insidious increase in community spread, which will be much more difficult to contain as the community spread amplifies itself.”

According to the Raleigh News & Observer, Fauci said that North Carolina’s numbers could not be explained simply by an increase in the availability of tests for COVID-19, because “when you get an increase in the percentage of tests that are positive, that’s an indication that you do have additional infections.”

“When you have those kinds of increases, you must implement on the ground as effectively as possible the manpower, the system, the tests to do identification, isolation and contact tracing to try and blunt that surge of cases,” Fauci said, according to the newspaper.

Cooper said that early on in the state’s COVID-19 response efforts, leaders did not have enough data and evidence about the effectiveness of masks against COVID-19. But he said that the experiences of other countries and new studies are now showing that “face masks can make a real difference.”

He referenced a study by scientists at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and the UNC School of Medicine, publicized earlier this month, which found that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 “infects the nasal cavity to a great degree by replicating specific cell types, and infects and replicates progressively less well in cells lower down the respiratory tract, including in the lungs,” according to an article posted at unc.edu.

“If the nose is the dominant initial site from which lung infections are seeded, then the widespread use of masks to protect the nasal passages, as well as any therapeutic strategies that reduce virus in the nose, such as nasal irrigation or antiviral nasal sprays, could be beneficial,” study co-senior author Dr. Richard Boucher was quoted as saying.

A separate recent study led by Texas A&M University that found that face coverings “significantly reduces the number of infections.” The study estimated that the use of face coverings alone reduced the number of infections by over 78,000 in Italy from April 6 to May 9 and over 66,000 in New York City from April 17 to May 9.

The statewide mandate follows a series of mandates enacted by local governments in the state, including the town of Boone. Unlike the statewide mandate, Boone’s mask requirement applied to indoor areas open to the public, but not outdoors.

The states of California, Washington and Virginia are among those to recently mandate that face coverings be worn in public places.

The extension of Phase 2 means that establishments and facilities such as bars, gyms, indoor fitness facilities, indoor entertainment venues such as movie theaters and bowling alleys and public playgrounds will remain closed under statewide executive order.

Restaurants, personal care businesses and retail stores are limited to an approximate 50 percent capacity, and gatherings — with the exception of religious and spiritual gatherings, funeral ceremonies, wedding ceremonies and other activities constituting the exercise of First Amendment rights — are limited to no more than 10 people indoors or 25 people outdoors.

In a statement responding to the governor’s decision, Republican N.C. Senate Leader Phil Berger questioned the consistency in the governor’s mandates, especially with respect to recent protests against racial injustice and police brutality.

“In Roy Cooper’s North Carolina, the governor can walk with a group of protesters with no mask on, but you can’t take your son or daughter to a playground,” Berger said. “Rioters can break windows and set fires with impunity, but you can’t exercise on an elliptical machine. We’re assured that masses of mask-less people gathered together in the streets caused no rise in cases, yet we’re now all required to wear masks because the danger is too great. The inconsistencies and hypocrisy continue to eat away at the trust in and credibility of this administration.”

Cooper’s latest order was to take effect at 5 p.m. Friday, June 26, and last until July 17.

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