All eyes on the data as NC inches closer to possible phase 2 of reopening

CHARLOTTE — North Carolina’s chief health leader is asking residents to “hang in there” by continuing to comply with the state business restrictions mean to blunt the COVID-19 pandemic.

State Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said Tuesday that testing, tracing and hospitalization trends used to make decisions on stay-home orders continue to be stable. Still, Cohen’s agency reported 675 new virus cases and 30 additional deaths in North Carolina on Tuesday, compared to a day earlier.

Gov. Roy Cooper said officials are not yet ready to make a decision whether North Carolina will be able to move into phase 2 of reopening when his current executive order expires Friday.

“We’re hoping that this can happen,” Cooper said. “We’re going to continue to look at the indicators.”

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Cooper said that health leaders have been working closely with the North Carolina business community to discuss what a safe step forward would look like and the kinds of restrictions that may be placed on businesses that could open in phase 2, including salons, bars and restaurants and gyms.

“We believe that economic prosperity and the health of the people can go hand in hand,” Cooper said.

However, he said ultimately, public health and safety is the top priority for leaders, and health officials will continue to look at the data before making a decision later this week.

“We have flattened the curve, but the threat of COVID-19 is still with us,” Cooper said.

Cohen pointed out that North Carolina saw its largest single-day increase of COVID-19 cases to date over the weekend -- an increase of 853 cases between Friday and Saturday.

“Any increase like this is concerning and a reminder about how quickly this virus can spread,” Cohen said.

While she said health officials are looking into the data to determine what may have caused the sharp spike in cases, she recognized that the state is continuing to test more people, and the percentage of positive tests as compared to total tests has remained mostly level at around 7%.

“We also know that we are easing restrictions and folks are moving around more,” Cohen said. “With more movement, there’s more chance for this virus to spread.”

On Tuesday, Cohen mentioned that hospitalizations in the state are up -- more patients are hospitalized now than ever in the pandemic, 585 across the state.

And there hasn’t been a consistent downward trend, which is one reason why some local leaders are concerned about moving into phase two.

Leaders in Davidson are so concerned that they’re talking about making their own restrictions. Commissioners there have put a lot of options on the table. A few days ago, Channel 9 reported the town is considering requiring people to wear masks, and that discussion will continue Tuesday night in a virtual meeting.

Davidson is looking at four key areas of what they call “divergence, and more potential restrictions.”

  • face masks
  • indoor dining
  • personal care services
  • theaters

Town leaders will lay out the pros and cons of more restrictions in these key areas, starting with requiring face masks. They’re also set to talk about the option of starting an aggressive public awareness campaign in Phase 2, showing people where to stand on sidewalks with decals spread 6 feet apart, and putting up signs around town to encourage wearing masks.

Cohen said as more North Carolinians venture outside to shop and go to parks, they should make the three W’s part of their daily routine: Wearing a face covering, Waiting six feet away from others and Washing hands frequently.

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Some business owners Channel 9 spoke with said they want to be ready for when that decision about the next phase is made and are in full preparation mode for whenever that happens.

“I'm excited to see my chairs down and people sitting in them again,” said chef Bruce Moffett, who told Eyewitness News that the past several weeks have been full of ups and downs. “I think I've learned a lot about my business and where the weaknesses are and what I need to improve on, and I've also learned what our strengths are.”

As of Monday, Moffett said he plans to re-open three of his four Charlotte restaurants to diners about a week into phase 2.

But, of course, it won't be business as usual. For example, his cozy Southpark restaurant Barrington's will be more spread out.

"We'll have, rather than a hostess, probably we’ll have someone like a safety guide person to kind of let people know what we're doing to keep them safe and just try and be proactive to help ease customers," Moffett said.

He's still hashing out protocols but said employees' temperatures will be taken and they'll wear masks. And diners can expect a sanitation station when they walk in.

In Plaza Midwood, Arthur Venegas is preparing his 1213 Studio for cuts and coloring once again.

“We have contacted the state board of cosmetology and they’re sending out recommendations for how to reopen safely,” he said. “We'll be having partitions between the stations just so clients and our fellow booth renters feel safe. We also are going to have sanitary stations throughout the salon.”

Venegas also said they plan to open about a week into phase 2 just to make sure they have every safety measure in place.

When asked about possible COVID-19 parties, where residents gather in an attempt to spread the virus and create herd immunity, Cooper responded sharply.

“That is completely irresponsible and absolutely unacceptable,” he said. ”If you do that, you can easily kill someone you love."

Cohen followed up on the question, adding, “There is no circumstance under which we want folks to actively pursue getting COVID-19.”

She explained the danger being that those who contract the disease from one of these events or parties will still run errands in the community, like going to the grocery store, and present a greater danger for people with chronic conditions.

“We are nowhere near herd immunity,” Cohen said. “A party will not help us. Please do not do that."