‘We are not there yet’: North Carolina’s stay-at-home order extended

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina is going to remain in this new normal for a while longer.

Resisting pressure as other Southern chief executives begin allowing businesses to reopen, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Thursday that he will extend North Carolina’s stay-at-home order through May 8. Cooper’s order, meant to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, went into effect at the end of March. It was set to expire next week.

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The governor’s goal is to eventually ease certain COVID-19 restrictions while still protecting North Carolinians from a dangerous second wave of the virus.

The governor, who also unveiled a three-phase plan for reopening based on expanded tracing and testing and declining case growth, said current data just doesn’t support loosening restrictions that began in mid-March.

[LINK: “Staying ahead of the curve” presentation]

Officials said they are seeing some progress with the acceleration of cases slowing and the number of people showing up at hospitals with COVID-19 symptoms dropping.

Although the curve is flattening, health officials said they are not ready to start lifting restrictions yet. They’re still concerned that there hasn’t been a downward trend in cases in two weeks.

"The hard work you have been doing has put North Carolina in a great place. We have flattened the curve but we are not there yet,” Dr. Mandy Cohen with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said.

Cooper laid out the state’s path toward reopening, but it won’t start until North Carolina hits certain milestones.

He said there must be progress in three areas: testing, tracing and trends. His decision Thursday was a reflection of where the state stands in those areas.

Right now, the state is testing 2,500 to 3,000 people a day. They want that to increase to 5,000 to 7,000.

It is important to trace people who came into contact with positive COVID-19 cases. Right now, there are 250 workers doing so. The state wants 250 more and they’re hiring a company to help.

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Right now, North Carolina is lacking gowns and N95 masks. Officials want to have enough personal protective equipment to last at least 30 days. They also want the number of people coming to the hospital with symptoms of the coronavirus to continue to go down and the number of cases and hospitalizations to decrease or level out.

Cooper said once the state hits those milestones, North Carolina will open in three phases.

Phase 1:

  • Modified stay-at-home order
  • More businesses can open with social distancing guidelines in place
  • Parks can reopen
  • Gathering limited to 10 people
  • Face covering recommended

Phase 2: (2-3 weeks after first phase)

  • Stay-at-home order lifted
  • Restaurants, bars and churches can open with limited capacity
  • Increased amount of people at gatherings

Phase 3: (4-6 weeks after second phase)

  • Increased capacity at restaurants, bars and churches
  • An even higher amount of people can gather in same place
  • Lessened restrictions for vulnerable people.

It’s a very slow roll-out, but one health officials believe is necessary.

North Carolina’s stay-at-home order, which allowed only essential business to open and limited movement by the public, was set to expire next Tuesday. Now it will be extended to May 8, as will other restrictions barring dine-in services for restaurants and closing gyms, hair salons and gyms. A prohibition on gatherings of more than 10 people also remains intact.

“I will not risk the health of our people or our hospitals. Easing these restrictions now would do that,” the governor said.

According to Cooper, if restrictions are eased and the state begins to trend in the wrong direction, North Carolina may have to step back a phase.

Hair salons and barbershops would not come back until phase two. To put that into perspective, the earliest North Carolinians will be able to get a professional haircut is May 22.

Under Cooper’s plan, more retail businesses and parks could reopen after May 8. People would also be allowed to leave their homes for more reasons if the state meets 14-day rolling-average goals on some key case and hospitalization rates and other thresholds.

At least two to three weeks later, the stay-at-home order could be lifted and restaurants, bars and churches reopened at reduced capacity if the goals continue to be met, Cooper said.

Activities could largely return to normal with further improvements, perhaps in at least an additional four to six weeks, according to the governor. But restrictions on nursing homes and other corporate living areas would remain. And broader restrictions could return if cases surge again.

Cohen laid out data showing that while the percentage of patient visits to emergency rooms for COVID-19-like illness is declining, the number of new COVID-19 cases is not. Hospitalizations related to the new coronavirus also aren’t currently on a downward path, according to Cohen’s presentation.

Officials have been meeting with three groups to figure out how the state could reopen. One group focuses on mass gatherings like concerts, games and religious ceremonies.

Another looks at businesses. The state Chamber of Commerce and the Retail Merchants Association are involved in discussing how stores could safely reopen.

The third group is focused on restaurants and their ability to operate while implementing social distancing between employees and customers. They’re also looking into how they would screen employees for COVID-19 symptoms.

Republican governors in Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia this week announced they would ease their state’s restrictions so that some nonessential businesses could open. Close to 1,000 people seeking to end North Carolina’s order marched around Cooper’s Executive Mansion on Tuesday. Many attendees didn’t appear to be practicing social distancing as the order requires.

Nationally, Americans remain overwhelmingly in favor of stay-at-home orders, according to a survey from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

As of Thursday, there were 7,608 positive cases reported across North Carolina, which is 388 more than the day prior.

Eleven more deaths were reported overnight, bringing the total for the state to 253.

There have been 96,185 completed tests and 486 people are currently in the hospital for COVID-19.

Mecklenburg County leaders wanted the stay-at-home order extended for two more weeks to ramp up testing. The county continues to lead the state in both cases and deaths, with 1,377 and 37 respectively.

With the number of COVID-19 related deaths and hospitalizations across North Carolina growing by the day, many residents support Cooper’s decision to extend the order, while others wanted it dropped.

Channel 9 put that question to you on Facebook -- do you think North Carolina should lift COVID-19 restrictions?

More than 20,000 people responded, with 46% saying “yes” while 54% said the state should stay closed.

The state’s K-12 schools are currently closed through May 15. Cooper said he and other education officials would announce Friday a decision on the rest of the school year.