Governor: ‘We don’t want to go backward’ as N.C. COVID-19 cases spike
North Carolinians will be required as of 5 p.m. Friday to wear face masks when they are out in public to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, Gov. Roy Cooper announced at a news conference Wednesday.
And the long-awaited third phase of reopening of shuttered businesses is delayed for at least three more weeks, until July 17, Cooper said. The delay is a blow to gyms, non-restaurant bars, amusement venues and other businesses and locations that have been closed or operating at extremely reduced capacity.
Cooper and N.C. Health and Human Secretary Mandy Cohen said these rules are needed because North Carolina’s COVID-19 case rates, are not declining.
Tuesday saw the state’s second-highest single day increase of infections, Cooper, with 1,721 newly reported cases. Further, there were 906 COVID-19 hospitalizations, also the second-highest total so far during the pandemic. Hospitalizations are 56% higher than they were on May 19, Cooper said.
The hospitals have enough capacity now to handle the coronavirus cases and other care, Cohen said, but she is concerned that this will change if the COVID-19 trends don’t start to decline.
Business owners hoped Cooper would relax the restrictions as of Friday. Gym owners and workers went to the legislature on Wednesday to urge lawmakers to override Cooper’s veto of a recent bill that would have allowed them and bars to reopen.
Cooper’s mask mandate applies to people who are within 6 feet of non-family members. It applies indoors and outdoors. There are exemptions, including for children under age 11 and people who have health issues that a mask could affect.
"We’re adding this new requirement because we don’t want to go backward," Cooper said, as the state continues to work to control COVID-19 cases amid the pandemic.
Until now, Cooper has only strongly recommended that the general public wear masks when out in public. Masks are intended to prevent potentially infected persons from spreading the virus to others.
A new study prepared by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University and other institutions looked at mask-wearing practices in 198 countries. It says COVID-19 weekly deaths grew by 8% in countries where mask-wearing was common or required, and by 54% each week in remaining countries without the mask-wearing standard or requirement.
There has been disagreement between Cooper, a Democrat, and Republican lawmakers in the Repubilcan-majority General Assembly on how quickly to end the pandemic-imposed shutdown and balance health needs with economic necessities.
The legislature has passed several bills in mostly party-line votes to reopen up COVID-shuttered businesses more quickly than Cooper thinks is safe
All non-essential N.C. businesses were ordered to close March 17 to stop the spread of COVID-19.
In late May, Cooper modified his executive order and allowed restaurants to reopen with limited in-house seating. Salons, barbershops and brewpubs also were allowed to reopen their doors.
But bars, along with movie theaters and gyms, were ordered to remain closed. Until Wednesday’s announcement, that order was to expire on Friday.
Cooper has repeatedly said the state’s battle with COVID-19, namely the number of positive coronavirus cases along with virus-related hospitalizations, needs to be heading in the right direction for the restrictions on increased gatherings to be lifted.
Masks also had become a contentious issue, broiled in politics with some conservatives seeing a mask requirement as infringing on their civil rights.
Virginia has issued a mask mandate, and U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., has said mask wearing will help -- not hinder -- North Carolina reopening its economy.
Prior to Wednesday, North Carolina officials had been recommending -- but not mandating -- the wearing of face masks in public.
But some municipalities had decided to act on their own than wait for the state.
Raleigh last week adopted a measure requiring masks to be worn when individuals will interact with people who are not household members. The proclamation covers businesses, parking lots, sidewalks and riders on public transit. Exceptions are included for children and religious reasons.
But police won’t cite anyone for not wearing a mask. Instead, law enforcement is "strongly encouraged to educate and encourage voluntary compliance with this order."
Durham has required masks in public since April, and Orange County adopted a similar requirement in mid-June. Southport in Brunswick County adopted its requirement on Monday, and Boone plans to make mask wearing mandatory as of Saturday.
Surrounding state policies
As Cooper slows down North Carolina’s reopening, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, and Tennessee present a form of peer-pressure on the governor’s decision. All four states have either implemented or announced less restrictive reopening policies than North Carolina.
In late April, Georgia became the country’s first state to begin reopening. Gyms and bars in Tennessee and South Carolina have been allowed to reopen for more than a month. New COVID-19 cases are increasing in all three states.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced his state will proceed to its own reopening Phase 3 on July 1. Among the changes, Virginia gyms will be allowed to open at 75% capacity and caps on gatherings will be raised from 50 to 250.
Some North Carolinians who live near state borders have already availed themselves of their neighbors’ more aggressive reopening laws.
"I would probably say at least 10-15% of new patrons are coming from North Carolina," said Kathleen Little, owner of Club 66 in the town of Young Harris, Georgia. Club 66 sits a mere 7 feet from the North Carolina border, and Little says patrons gripe about North Carolina’s COVID-19 safety policies.
"They think it's absolutely ridiculous," Little said. "They're hurting the economy so bad."
Are people defying the ban now?
Some business owners have resisted the executive orders that Cooper has issued over the past several months that have kept them closed or at reduced capacity in response to the coronavirus.
For example, Ace Speedway in Alamance County held races until authorities stopped them. The race track owners have taken the issue to court and a judge is expected to issue a ruling this week.
In May police in Holly Ridge shut down Snap Fitness, a gym near Jacksonville. Meanwhile, a group of fitness center owners sought a court order to allow them to reopen. A Wake County judge denied this request on June 10.
Gareth McGrath of the Wilmington StarNews and Brian Gordon of the Asheville Citizen-Times contributed to this article.