CHARLOTTE — Some COVID-19 restrictions in North Carolina will be lifted at 5 p.m. today.
With cases and other key metrics trending downward in North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper on Wednesday announced the state will ease gathering and occupancy restrictions and end its 10 p.m. statewide curfew starting Friday.
For the first time since early into the coronavirus pandemic, the Democratic governor is allowing bars and taverns to offer indoor service. His new executive order also increases alcohol sale cutoff times by two hours from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. and lets those businesses operate at 30% capacity up to 250 people.
If they follow state health guidelines, such as mask-wearing and physical distancing, night clubs, conference spaces, indoor amusement parks, movie theaters and sports and entertainment venues may also operate with the same capacity.
“After alarmingly high numbers throughout the winter holidays, North Carolina’s trends have declined and stabilized,” Cooper said. “Hospitalizations have dropped to their lowest point since before Thanksgiving. The percent of tests returning positive continues to decline. This is encouraging.”
Cooper officially lifted his modified stay-at-home order, which closed non-essential businesses like gyms, restaurants, and retail, at 10 p.m. nightly. That order, signed in the wake of the Thanksgiving and Christmas case surge, also placed a 9 p.m. curfew on alcohol sales.
Though non-essential businesses can stay open late, alcohol sales will still be subject to a curfew, but now that will be 11 p.m.
Cooper is easing other pandemic-related restrictions, such as allowing bars to seat customers indoors for the first time in almost a year and allowing more fans at sporting events.
The changes take effect Friday, Feb. 26, and are set to expire later in March.
Cooper said the statewide mask mandate and mass gathering limits of 10 people indoors and 50 people outdoors will remain in place to limit the spread of the virus as more people gather with the eased restrictions.
“As more people get together, it will become more vital,” he said. “We’re still in the middle of a pandemic. We still have a virus that’s contagious.”
The sweeping changes also extend to bars and establishments where food sales make up less than 30% of sales. For the first time since March 2020, bars will be allowed to open at 30% capacity with a cap of 250 people.
Gyms, museums, aquariums, barbershops, pools, outdoor amusement parks, retail establishments, restaurants, breweries and wineries will be able to open at 50% capacity with health and safety protocols.
Some businesses that were limited to operating outdoors at 30% capacity will still have to abide by that percentage but will no longer have a 100-person cap. That includes sports fields and venues, stadiums, outdoor bars, outdoor amusement parks and other outdoor businesses.
30% Capacity Limit (may not exceed 250 people in indoor spaces):
- Meeting, Reception, and Conference Spaces
- Lounges (including tobacco) and Night Clubs
- Indoor areas of Amusement Parks
- Movie Theatres
- Entertainment facilities (e.g., bingo parlors, gaming establishments)
- Sports Arenas and Fields*
Indoor event venues with more than 5,000 seats may be excepted from the 250 person limit if they follow additional safety measures up to 15% capacity.
50% Capacity Limit:
- Breweries, Wineries, Distilleries
- Fitness and Physical Activity Facilities (gyms, bowling alleys, rock climbing facilities)
- Museums and Aquariums
- Outdoor areas of Amusement Parks
- Salons, Personal Care, Tattoo Parlors
Larger sports venues able to seat over 5,000 people can host up to 15% of their fans, provided they adhere to additional safety restrictions. PNC Arena, which hosts Carolina Hurricanes hockey games in Raleigh, and the Spectrum Center, which is home to the Charlotte Hornets, would be able to let in about 3,000 people.
The Hornets released a statement saying they made upgrades to make sure fans will be safe. There is no timeline for the first game.
This also means 3,000 fans will be able to attend Charlotte Knights baseball games.
Charlotte Motor Speedway said it plans to meet that 30% fan capacity for the Coca-Cola 600 this May. The Charlotte Hornets also said that some fans will be allowed to return soon.
Shortly after the news, the Hurricanes announced the team will begin hosting fans for its March 4 game against the Detroit Red Wings.
“The Caniacs are the backbone of our franchise, and we are thrilled to welcome them back to PNC Arena,” said a statement from Don Waddell, the team’s president and general manager.
”Easing these restrictions will only work if we keep protecting ourselves and others from this deadly virus,” Cooper said. “The order and our own common sense say that health and safety protocols must remain in place.”
North Carolina surpassed 11,000 deaths during the pandemic on Wednesday, but the daily averages for new infections and people hospitalized with COVID-19 have been trending downward for more than a month, following spikes related to the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
Bars have been especially hard hit during the pandemic, forced to close for months and then allowed to serve only a limited number of people in outdoor areas. On Wednesday, Cooper said bars will be allowed to reopen at 30% of indoor capacity or 250 people, whichever is less.
Similarly, limits on attendance at sporting events are being eased. Previously, venues were capped at 100 people for outdoor events and 25 people indoors.
This week, Republicans in the state House filed a bill that would require schools to increase the number of spectators allowed at high school sporting events. House Bill 128 would require schools to allow spectators to fill at least 25% of a facility’s capacity at indoor and outdoor sporting events and would allow schools the option to increase capacity up to 50%.
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For some businesses, Cooper’s announcement is too little too late. The pandemic and Cooper’s directives prompted many bars to cease operations, said Zack Medford, president of the North Carolina Bar and Tavern Association. Still, he praised Cooper’s decision.
“This is a huge, hard-fought win,” Medford said following Cooper’s announcement. “The lessening of these restrictions would never have been possible without the tireless efforts of NCBATA members and allies for the past 343 days. We look forward to continuing to build on this success with the Governor’s Office, and helping get our bar and taverns back on their feet after such a devastating year.”
Under Cooper’s current executive order, which expires Sunday, all restaurants, bars, personal care businesses and most retailers must be closed between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Grocery stores, pharmacies and gas stations can remain open past 10 p.m., and restaurants can continue to fill takeout and delivery orders after 10 p.m.
Alcohol sales for on-site consumption have to end at 9 p.m. under the current order.
Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said that highly contagious coronavirus variants are “a wild card” in battling the pandemic.
“We’ll do what we need to do,” Cooper said when asked if restrictions would be reimposed if variants produce a new surge in cases.
The state’s latest county alert map to indicate coronavirus hot spots had only 27 counties listed as “red zones,” with critical levels of viral spread, down from 61 in early February.
The state reported the fewest new virus infections on Tuesday since Nov. 2, and fewer than 2,000 people have been hospitalized with COVID-19 in North Carolina for the past week.
“We will continue to look at our trends, look at the science, look at the settings, as well as the activities within them and whether or not they are higher risk,” NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said on Tuesday. “It is really both the setting and the activity, that’s how we want to balance as we make decisions going forward.”
Allowing high school stadiums to open at 30% capacity ahead of Friday’s high school football games left parents across the state overjoyed with the progress.
Parents have been desperate to see their kids play sports -- more than 40,000 signed a petition asking the governor to ease restrictions.
Meagen O’Connell, a Union County mother who started that petition, told Channel9 she was stunned by Cooper’s announcement.
“I can’t even begin to describe how I feel,” she said. “I don’t even think I know how I feel right now. I’m so happy for families across North Carolina that they’re going to see their kids play. It just hasn’t sunk in yet.”
The governor’s announcement impacts all parts of life, from where you go to eat, grab a drink and even how late you can stay out.
Channel 9 was with the owners of Max and Lola on Mint Street Wednesday after Cooper’s announcement and could see the huge sense of relief on their faces, knowing they can have people actually come inside their bar and sit down and enjoy a drink.
The governor announced that bars can open at 30% capacity inside and can now stay open until 11 p.m.
Co-owner Clyde Thomas told Channel 9 that when he heard the news his mind immediately went to his employees that he had to lay off.
“I can hire my people back,” he said. “People -- my people -- are collecting unemployment when they could be here providing for themselves.”
Several levels of restrictions will be eased or lifted on Friday, which is something that some business owners have been waiting for months to hear.
El Centenario in University City had its Alcoholic Beverage Control commission permits pulled for defying the governor’s orders, but the nightclub’s owner and ABC recently came to an agreement, and now the nightclub is opening back up.
Owner Kevin Galyan is just thankful the power is on at this point.
“It has been tough. Definitely had to reach out for some help just to keep the lights on until we get back going,” he said.
Last year, Galyan told Channel 9 that he had no choice but to defy the governor’s order to generate enough cash to survive. In October, the ABC commision suspended his alcohol permits.
“It has been the hardest year I think I have ever experienced,” he said.
Since then, he struck an agreement with ABC that as long as he remains closed until private bars are permitted to open for indoor service, he’ll get his liquor license back. So Friday night at 7 p.m., he is back in business.
“It is the hope we have been looking for,” Galyan said.
Bars and nightclubs like El Centenario can have up to 30% capacity indoors. Galyan said he’ll have a maximum of 250 people.
“I am excited we finally get to open, make some money and the customers are excited. My landlord, I think they are even more excited,” he said.
During the news conference, Cooper reiterated his opposition to a school reopening bill as it’s presently written. The proposal introduced by Republican state lawmakers and backed a handful of Democrats would give the state’s 115 districts about two weeks to offer at least partial in-person instruction to all of its pupils.
The vast majority of school boards have elected to reopen, but some still remain fully remote. Cooper has until late Saturday to sign or veto the bill before it automatically becomes law. Cooper “strongly encourages” the unopened districts to get kids back to the classroom but opposes the statewide mandate that he believes does not gives school boards the flexibility they need to respond to an emergency amid the pandemic.
In response to pressure from teacher advocates, Cooper allowed educators, child care workers and school staff to begin getting vaccinated on Wednesday. Other “frontline essential workers,” including the governor and other elected officials, will become eligible on March 10. It will likely take a while for many vaccine providers to free up doses for teachers and other workers amid strong demand from residents 65 years or older who have been eligible since mid-January.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
North Carolina health officials reported 3,346 new COVID-19 cases across the state on Wednesday, bringing the total to 849,630 statewide since the pandemic began.
Throughout the state, 109 more people have died from the virus.
With 97% of hospitals reporting, there were 33 fewer COVID-19 patients hospitalized across the state than there were the day before.
In total, 1,530 remain hospitalized with the virus. NCDHHS data said 180 confirmed COVID-19 patients were admitted to hospitals in the past 24 hours.
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