North Carolina governor to ease stay-home order later this week

Published 10:43 am Wednesday, May 6, 2020

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By GARY D. ROBERTSON, Associated Press

Gov. Roy Cooper agreed on Tuesday to ease North Carolina’s stay-at-home order, saying COVID-19 cases are generally stable and testing, tracing and health care supplies improving enough to warrant increased commerce and movement.

A new executive order taking effect Friday afternoon that opens many more businesses will replace a more restrictive mandate that Cooper had issued starting March 30. The Democratic governor began to loosen the number of activities that are no longer prohibited later than many other Southern chief executives.

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Caution was the key word for Cooper, even as a conservative-leaning group has held weekly demonstrations near the Executive Mansion demanding he cancel his stay-at-home order completely in the name of freedom and reopening the economy. The state has received more than 1 million unemployment benefit claims since mid-March. Cooper said health officials are driving when decisions are made, followed by input from employers.

“We are easing restrictions in a data-driven way,” Cooper said at a news media briefing, adding the changes will “give people safe opportunities to socialize and boost parts of our economy while keeping important safety restrictions in place.”

Under his modified stay-at-home order, retail businesses previously considered nonessential will be allowed to open, but they must be capped at 50% capacity and must direct customers to practice social distancing. Workers are urged to wear masks. Parks are encouraged to reopen and more child care centers can now open.

Bars, barbershops, hair salons and gyms still have to stay closed, and restaurants still can offer only takeout and delivery options, as they have been limited to since mid-March. Gatherings of more than 10 people are still prohibited to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, but church services are allowed if outside and congregants remain at least 6 feet (2 meters) apart.

Cooper considers the new order the first step of a three-phase plan to reopen the state, which has reported more than 12,250 positive cases and over 450 related deaths. The governor said two weeks ago that decisions would be based on making progress in 14-day case trends and in improvements with testing, tracing and personal protective equipment supplies.

Although the trends for COVID-like illness in hospitals and the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests are improving, the rolling average of lab-confirmed cases is increasing slightly and hospitalizations are level, state Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said.

The number of tests performed daily have doubled, and a group is in the process of hiring contact tracers to double the number of such workers. The supply of personal protective equipment also is growing, save for surgical gowns.

There’s no guarantee the state will move to a broader reopening phase when the new order expires May 22, Cooper said. Cohen pointed out new data released Tuesday showing that slightly more than half of North Carolina adults are at higher risk for catching the virus because they are at least 65 years old, have at least one underlying health condition or both.

“We cannot lower our guard,” Cohen said, adding later: “We still want you to stay home, and if you’re sick, you should definitely be staying at home.”

Disclosure of the new order’s signing came hours after a few hundred people associated with the ReopenNC group opposed to Cooper’s stay-at-home mandate rallied again in downtown Raleigh. They didn’t march, as they had during their past two weekly gatherings. Ashley Smith, a ReopenNC co-founder, told the group that leaders were considering litigation to challenge Cooper’s authority and would raise money toward legal expenses.

In a news release, Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, called the new order “largely a continuation of the existing lockdown” and said Cooper should consider differentiating restrictions based on region.

“Why is a blanket, one-size-fits-all statewide order justified?” Berger asked. “I’m concerned that Gov. Cooper is ignoring more reasonable approaches and the experiences of the majority of states.”

Earlier Tuesday, the North Carolina Chamber also recommended a broader first step than Cooper offered. The Chamber had wanted restaurants and personal care service businesses to reopen as long as safe workplace and distancing guidelines were followed.