NC’s new mask mandate starts today: Here’s what you need to know

The governor issued a new directive to boost mask-wearing and tighten business restrictions amid rising coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.

RALEIGH, N.C. — As North Carolina continues to see record-breaking rises in coronavirus trends, Gov. Roy Cooper announced an executive order that will impose tighter statewide safety measures ahead of Thanksgiving.

Cooper issued the order Monday with tough language on enforcing the statewide mask mandate, but little action on limiting business activity that has contributed to rising coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in recent months.

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The newly re-elected Democrat said he does not want the state to go “backward” by shutting down businesses or schools. Instead, he’s holding out hope that increased compliance with existing health guidelines will stabilize the worsening trends.

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“Our numbers are going up, but things are not on fire yet,” Cooper said Monday.

The governor pleaded with North Carolinians to adjust their Thanksgiving plans to avoid traveling, warning residents “are in danger.” His top public health official, Dr. Mandy Cohen, said the state is “on very shaky ground.”

“I have a stark warning for North Carolinians today: We are in danger,” Cooper said. “This is a pivotal moment in our fight against the coronavirus. Our actions now will determine the fate of many.”

The order tightens the existing statewide mask requirement, making it clear that everyone needs to wear a mask whenever they are with someone who is not from the same household. The order also adds the mask requirement to several additional settings, including any public indoor space even when maintaining 6 feet of distance; gyms even when exercising; all schools public and private; and all public or private transportation when traveling with people outside of the household.

“Our statewide mask requirement has been in effect since June and it is still our best weapon in this fight,” Cooper said. “Today’s executive order will further tighten that mandate, making it clear that everyone needs to wear a mask whenever you are with someone you don’t live with.”

IMPORTANT NOTE: Cooper’s requirement applies only to indoor public spaces. The governor encourages you to wear a mask inside your home, but as of yet, no executive orders have breached private homes.

Total number of NC counties in ‘Red Zone’ doubles

Cooper unveiled a new alert system last week that assigns one of three colors to counties based on key coronavirus metrics. Cooper said Monday that 20 counties have fallen into the red “critical” spread category, up from 10 in the previous week. An additional 42 counties are labeled orange because they have “substantial community spread.” The remaining areas are yellow with “significant” spread.

The system encourages counties with high levels of coronavirus transmission to more aggressively enforce statewide health guidelines and punish non-compliant businesses.

>> NC County Alert System: See how your county is doing

Cohen said they updated North Carolina’s COVID-19 County Alert System map due to the rapid rise in cases and hospitalization over the past week.

“The coming weeks will be a true test of our resolve to do what it takes to keep people from getting sick, to save lives, and to make sure that if you need hospital care -- whether it’s for a heart attack or a car accident or COVID-19 -- you can get it,” she said.

With the 10 additional counties seeing critical spread, there are now 20 counties in the red zone -- double what the state reported last week. Catawba County was the only local county added to red on Monday.

42 counties across the state are in the orange and the remaining are in the yellow.

“Remember, we still have a high level of concern for our yellow counties, people in counties that are yellow should take action to ensure they don’t become orange or red,” Cohen said. “Our statewide metrics and county alert map show that we are on very shaky ground.”

Health officials said the drastic increase indicates high levels of community spread across North Carolina and officials fear the Thanksgiving holiday, with its traditional large family gatherings, could make the situation worse.

Breakdown of current NC trends provided by Dr. Mandy Cohen:

  • ER visits - increasing
  • Cases - increasing
  • Percent positive - increasing slightly (near 7%)
  • Hospitalizations - increasing

“With our trends where they are I’m asking you to please consider celebrating Thanksgiving differently,” Cohen said. “This year, the safest thing we can do for our loved ones is to follow the CDC guidance and avoid traveling and getting together in person, especially indoors.”

So what exactly is new with the latest executive order?

The state’s previous guidance called for the wearing of a mask when it was not possible to keep six feet from other people; the new guidance says masks should be worn at all times when indoors in public places.

Under the new order, which goes into effect on Wednesday and runs through Dec. 11, Phase 3 capacity limits and safety requirements have been extended.

The order also requires everyone to wear a mask whenever they are with someone who is not from the same household and adds the mask requirement to several additional settings including:

  • Public indoor spaces even when maintaining 6 feet of distance
  • Gyms, even when exercising
  • All schools, public and private
  • All public or private transportation when traveling with people outside of the household
  • Restaurants must have all guests wear face coverings, including at their table, unless they are eating or drinking.

Cooper’s order Monday doesn’t tighten occupancy limits on businesses. It instead stresses increased mask-wearing, particularly at gyms and restaurants.

People exercising indoors must wear a mask if they are not within their own home. If they are outside and within 6 feet of someone who does not live in their household, they also need to be masked. College and professional athletes not actively competing or recovering from exercise must be masked.

The order requires all restaurant workers to wear a mask, even if they don’t interact with the public. Customers must also be masked, including at their table, when they are not actively eating or drinking.

Local police departments can fine businesses that fail to enforce the mask mandate, which was first issued in June. Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan said at the news conference that businesses in her city can also be fined $100 for each person over the permitted capacity.

The new order makes it clear that individuals can be fined for not wearing a mask and charged with trespassing if they remain unmasked and refuse to leave a business’s premises.

Cooper said he wanted to give businesses and residents yet another chance to follow safety guidelines before he feels prompted to shutter parts of the economy.

“We want to give this a little more time to see if we can stem the tide of these numbers,” Cooper said. “I have a belief that the people of North Carolina can pull together and do this — and understand if we don’t, we will have to go backward. Right now, we think this is the right move. It’s a call to arms.”

His order goes into effect at 5 p.m. Wednesday and expires at the same time Dec. 11.

‘If we all do the right thing, we will all be fine’

Paul Manley, who owns The Waterman, Ace3 and Sea Level, said the new restrictions give some clarity to the industry.

“We are depending on fellow restauranteurs and bar owners to do the right thing,” Manley said. “If we all do the right thing, we will all be fine. We’ll stay in business.”

Manly said he will follow the rules and encourages other businesses to do the same. More restrictions have only been on the table.

“If we have a blanket shut down because the rules aren’t being followed by some, it’s going to be devastating for our business and for our staff we employ,” Manley said. “A lot of people and they rely on us.”

The order also requires large retail businesses with more than 15,000 square feet to have an employee stationed near entrances ensuring mask-wearing and implementing capacity limits for customers who enter.

“We need communities and local governments all over the state, but especially in these red and orange hotspots, to work with us to enforce the strong safety rules we already have in place,” Cooper said.

The governor warned of further restrictions if counties don’t heed the state’s advice.

“The next seven to 14 days will tell us whether we are stemming the tide, or whether we need to ratchet it up even more,” Cooper said.

The announcement comes after a record-breaking day for North Carolina. The state reported more than 4,500 new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police sent Channel 9 a statement saying their enforcement of the mask mandate will be complaint-driven. They said they’ll vet complaints and will continue focusing on education with citations as a last resort.

Early Monday morning, CMPD broke up a party in east Charlotte that they said violated the governor’s indoor gathering ban of 10 people or less. The party was held at Banquet 49 on Albemarle Road.

Police said everyone cooperated, so they are not investigating it as a criminal incident.

Some business owners told Channel 9 that they hope following the rules now will avoid even more restrictions.

“I know that people are sick of it, we all are -- everybody’s sick of it, you know?” said Shawn O’Brien, owner of Benny Pennello’s in NoDa. “Would you rather wear a mask or get sick or be at risk of being sick?”

Cohen also provided an update on North Carolina’s data and trends:

Trajectory in COVID-Like Illness (CLI) Surveillance Over 14 Days

  • North Carolina’s syndromic surveillance trend for COVID-like illness is increasing.

Trajectory of Confirmed Cases Over 14 Days

  • North Carolina’s trajectory of cases is increasing.

Trajectory in Percent of Tests Returning Positive Over 14 Days

  • North Carolina’s trajectory in percent of tests returning positive is increasing slightly.

Trajectory in Hospitalizations Over 14 Days

  • North Carolina’s trajectory of hospitalizations is increasing.

In addition to these metrics, the state continues building capacity to adequately respond to an increase in virus spread in testing, tracing and prevention.

Testing

  • Testing capacity is high.

Tracing Capability

  • The state is continuing to hire contact tracers to bolster the efforts of local health departments.
  • There have been more than 430,000 downloads of the exposure notification app, SlowCOVIDNC.

Personal Protective Equipment

  • North Carolina’s personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies are stable.

NC tops 1,600 COVID-19 hospitalizations for the first time

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services released new COVID-19 numbers on Monday, a day after the state saw the highest single-day number of new cases since the pandemic began.

Thirty more people are now in hospitals across North Carolina dealing with COVID-19 symptoms, bringing the state total to 1,601 -- the highest yet recorded.

>> Have questions about the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the Carolinas? We have an entire section dedicated to coverage of the outbreak -- CLICK HERE FOR MORE.

“I do not want to see the bottom fall out. I’m particularly concerned about our record number of people in the hospital,” Cohen said. “The coming weeks, will be a true test of our resolve to do what it takes to keep people from getting sick to save lives and to make sure you have a hospital care for whether it’s a heart attack, a car accident, or COVID-19, when you need it.”

The state reported 2,419 more cases n Monday, which is down from recent days -- but Mondays tend to have lower case reports than other days of the week.

The daily percent positive of the cases reported Monday was 6.6%. That continues a decline from the 9.4% reported last Monday.

The virus has killed 5,039 North Carolinians since March.

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[COUNTY-BY-COUNTY COVID-19 RESOURCE GUIDE]

[CORONAVIRUS IN THE CAROLINAS; HERE’S HOW TO STAY INFORMED]

Note: The numbers we show you every day mean everything in how our community recovers from coronavirus -- both in terms of healthcare and the economy -- but they don’t mean much without the proper context and as much transparency as possible.

New cases vary day by day based on a lot of factors. That can include how long it takes to get results back, so a new case reported today can really be several days old.

The other big metric we watch is the percent of positive cases. This is data we can only get from the state because it’s not as simple as factoring a percent of new cases each day from the number of tests. That’s because test results take days and come from a variety of places.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.