Governor agrees to ease stay-home order later this week

Published 6:39 pm Tuesday, May 5, 2020

RALEIGH (AP) — 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.

Caution was the key word for Cooper, even as a conservative-leaning group have held weekly demonstration 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, with input from employers and businesses on the types of restrictions.

“We are easing restrictions in a data-driven way,” Cooper said at a media briefing.
Under his new 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, barber shops and hair salons, and gyms still have to stay closed, and restaurants still can offer only takeout and delivery options, as they have been limited since mid-March. Although gatherings of more than 10 people are still prohibited to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, church services are allowed if they are outside and congregants remain at least 6 feet 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.”
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.

Smith had little confidence that any change by Cooper would make a difference for workers and businesses displaced by massive closings for several weeks.

“Desperation is growing and the people’s patience is running thin,” Smith told reporters. The best course of action, she said, would be to remove all business and movement restrictions and let people use common sense.

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.

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