CHARLOTTE — Remaining six feet apart, limiting capacity at family gatherings and wearing a face covering almost everywhere have all become a part of life -- but that’s all over in North Carolina.
In a major step toward returning to pre-pandemic life, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Friday that the state is completely lifting all mandatory capacity, gathering limits and social distancing requirements, effective immediately.
Most mandatory mask mandates have also been lifted. That means that in most settings -- indoors or outdoors -- the state will no longer require North Carolinians to be socially distant or wear a mask.
“We can take this step today because the science shows our focus on getting people vaccinated is working,” Cooper said. “But to keep moving forward -- and to make sure that we keep saving lives -- more people need to get vaccinated.”
Here are the three biggest changes that impact you:
- There are no more capacity limits, indoors or outdoors, so restaurants don’t have to block off tables anymore.
- Social distancing requirements are gone, which means that those six feet signs you see everywhere can go away.
- You no longer have to wear a mask in most places.
For context, here’s a breakdown of how long these mandates have been in place:
- The limits on mass gatherings went into effect in North Carolina March 23, 2020 -- that’s now gone.
- Six feet of social distancing has been a rule since the April 9, 2020 executive order -- that’s now gone.
- Masks have been required nearly everywhere since June 24, 2020 -- that’s now mostly gone.
Cooper’s announcement came less than 24 hours after the Centers for Disease Control eased mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people, allowing them to stop wearing masks outdoors in crowds and in most indoor settings.
In accordance with the new CDC guidance, there will still be certain settings where masks and other safety measures will be required in North Carolina. Masks will still be required in child care, schools and camps as most children are either not yet vaccinated or are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.
Everyone, including people who are fully vaccinated, will still be required to wear a mask in certain settings such as public transportation, health care settings like hospitals, doctor’s offices and long-term care settings like nursing homes, and certain congregate settings like correctional facilities and homeless shelters.
Masks are still strongly recommended for everyone at large crowded indoor events like sporting events and live performances.
The NCDHHS will continue to have strong public health recommendations for individuals to continue to protect one another until more people are vaccinated. People who are not vaccinated should wear a mask and maintain distance in all indoor public settings and in outdoor settings when they can’t maintain six feet of distance.
“I have a message for people who have not been vaccinated, and especially those who will choose not to wear a mask. Get vaccinated now,” Cooper said. “If you don’t listen to me, ask your doctor and do what your doctor tells you.”
On the road to reopening, masks have been key to businesses keeping employees and customers safe. Businesses may choose to continue to require that their customers wear masks.
The NCDHHS recommends public-facing businesses post signage reminding guests to social distance and wear a face covering if they are not fully vaccinated; remind employees to self-monitor for symptoms of COVID-19; have a plan to immediately isolate and remove sick workers; and clean high-touch surfaces once a day.
“I am so proud of the incredible progress we have made”
Many businesses have been waiting over a year for the news. As soon as the governor made the announcement, employees at Dilworth Neighborhood Grille began pulling down signage asking people to wear masks. Some of the messages had been on a chalkboard so long, they couldn’t be erased.
The restaurant’s owner Matt Wohlfarth told Channel 9 he feels the state has listened to the science all along but he wishes he had a little bit more warning from the state.
He said now that he can fully reopen, he’s not prepared for the rush because he’s not fully staffed.
“I was here this morning, but now I am closing also because there was no warning about this. We are going to get killed so we are staffed appropriately for the night that we thought we would have but now that is out the window,” Wohlfarth said.
Cooper had previously said that he planned to lift all mandates on social distancing and gathering limits by June 1.
The NCDHHS said the ability to lift restrictions sooner than anticipated shows the importance of vaccinating all North Carolinians. As of last week, even more people can get vaccinated.
Younger teens between 12 and 15 can now get the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. Young people are vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus, just like everyone else, and the percent of COVID-19 cases in North Carolina children 17 and under has been increasing.
The governor’s decision to lift indoor mask mandates came as somewhat of a surprise because he initially said he wanted 2/3 of adults to be vaccinated before he did so. NCDHHS changed its course because of the new CDC guidance, according to Cooper.
As of Friday, the state has administered over 7.7 million doses. 51% percent of those 18 and up are at least partially vaccinated, and 46% percent of those 18 and up have been fully vaccinated.
“I am so proud of the incredible progress we have made in beating back this pandemic,” NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said. “Vaccines continue to be incredibly effective at protecting individuals from this terrible virus. And as more and more people get vaccinated, the results show in our stable metrics with lower cases, lower hospitalizations, and lower deaths.”
Cohen also said people who are fully vaccinated don’t have to quarantine and don’t have to get a COVID-19 test if they have been exposed unless they have symptoms. Unvaccinated people will have to continue to do these things under the most recent guidance.
Are people ready to remove the mask?
The owners of the NoDa Company Store told Channel 9 they’re going to follow state guidance, and they want their entire staff to be fully vaccinated before they drop the mask requirement for employees.
But they did admit that the new guidance feels a bit like freedom.
“To be able to consider going into crowds and not wearing masks, to me, it’s a pretty big day,” said co-owner Joey Hewell.
One couple we talked to had mixed feelings about it. Mel King was wearing a mask, but her husband wasn’t.
“You just have to decide what’s going to be best based on some of the facts that you have and then make a judgment call. There’s no one fit for everybody on this one,” she said.
(WATCH: Are people ready to remove the mask?)
Charlotte resident Grace Haag was out for a walk with her husband Paul and son Daniel. She said she’s OK not wearing a mask outside, but inside -- it’s a different story.
“For me, not enough people are vaccinated for me to really feel safe, because how do you know if someone’s been vaccinated if they’re not wearing a mask?” she asked.
It’s a question that the management at Cabo Fish Taco is asking too.
“We talked about it. We have followed suit with everything Governor Cooper has asked us to do, from start to finish,” manager Chris Wade said.
Channel 9 spoke with Wade a year ago when COVID restrictions forced him to close the dining room. Now, he said with no limits on seating, business is back where it was before COVID, but they’ll still have staff wearing masks.
“We want the customers to feel comfortable,” he said. “We want them to feel like they are safe. We will more than likely as a company go that route.”
(WATCH: Many people feel sense of normalcy at South End wine and beer fest following lifted restrictions)
Across the street at the tattoo shop, they’re going one step further.
“I think we’re gonna stick with the masks,” Tattoo shop owner Stephanie Woody said.
Woody said they’re not ready to drop all of the safety protocols yet -- even if the governor says they can.
When Channel 9′s Mark Becker asked if she was worried about losing some business because of that, she said, “Not at all. I don’t care. I think that’s the beauty of being in business for yourself, I don’t have to beg you to come in here if you don’t like our policy.”
For many, the evolving guidance can be hard to follow. UNCC Associate Professor Dr. Michael Thompson has decades of experience in public health and said scientists now have more data about how the vaccines work in society -- and not just from clinical trials.
It’s that understanding which prompted the CDC to announce on Thursday that vaccinated people can go mask-free.
“Not only does it protect you, it stops you from getting it A-systematically. It stops you from transmitting it,” Thompson said.
Children and those unvaccinated still need to wear a mask, according to the CDC.
(WATCH: How much longer will masks be required indoors in North Carolina?)
The easing guidance is a major step toward resuming life pre-pandemic -- but is likely to open the door to confusion. Here is everything to know about the eased masking guidelines.
Where can fully vaccinated people take off their masks?
This new guidance clears the way for reopening workplaces, schools and other venues.
They can participate in most indoor and outdoor activities -- large or small -- without wearing a mask or physically distancing, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC.
She said those who are not fully vaccinated should continue to wear masks indoors. That’s because of continued uncertainty about whether the vaccines can rev up a weakened immune system as well as they do normal, healthy ones.
Do fully vaccinated people need to wear mask planes? Airports? Buses? Train stations?
The requirement to wear masks during travel -- on buses, trains, planes and public transportation -- still stands, Walensky said, and guidance for travel will be updated as science emerges.
Where else will mask-wearing still be required?
The new guidance still calls for wearing masks in some crowded indoor settings, specifically hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters. The CDC has not specified which other places should require fully vaccinated people to keep their face coverings.
People who are immune-compromised should speak with their doctors before giving up their masks.
How will businesses prove that customers were vaccinated?
That’s unclear and will likely cause confusion.
There is no surefire way for businesses or others to distinguish between those fully vaccinated and those who are not.
Stopping people at the doors of the grocery store or bowling alley to check for a vaccine card probably won’t work, Dr. Anthony Fauci said.
“I think there’s going to be a pushback against questioning somebody when they walk in, because you can never validate or prove that they’re telling you the truth,” Fauci said.
And questioning people would be “virtually a functional equivalent of a vaccine passport, and I don’t think that’s going to work,” he added.
In Florida, for example, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an order banning businesses from requiring customers to show proof of vaccination and prohibiting state agencies from issuing so-called vaccine passports that document COVID-19 vaccinations and test results.
Implementing masking rules
A local business owner told Channel 9 that he’s not going to be going around checking to see if people are vaccinated. If you walk into his restaurant without a mask he’ll assume you have been and if you haven’t been vaccinated -- he wants you to wear a mask.
Mask wearing has been a contentious issue throughout the pandemic. Retail and grocery store workers, restaurant staff and other frontline workers have often been thrust into the role of carrying out their employers’ mask rules, sometimes with violent consequences.
In the early months of the pandemic, a Family Dollar security officer was shot and killed after telling a customer to wear a mask and in Los Angeles, a Target security guard was left with a broken arm from a fight with two unmasked customers.
Unions representing grocery store workers and retail workers said Thursday that stores should continue requiring customers to wear masks to protect workers.
Here is a list of stores that say they’re reviewing their masking policies:
CVS said it is reevaluating its in-store policy, which requires customers and employees to wear masks, based on the latest CDC guidance. “The safety of our employees and customers will continue to guide our decision-making process,” a spokesperson said in an email.
Macy’s is also reviewing its mask policy, a spokesperson said.
Walgreens is reviewing the updated CDC guidance, Emily Mekstan, a spokesperson for the company, said.
Harris Teeter, Home Depot, Dollar General and Starbucks
Representatives for all four stores said they will keep their policies mandating shoppers and employees wear masks.
Do I need to cover my face within state borders that have mask mandates?
According to the CDC, Americans -- vaccinated or not -- need to follow federal, state, local and tribal rules and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.
What else are fully vaccinated people allowed to do?
Along with loosened guidelines on mask-wearing and social distancing, the CDC announced that fully vaccinated people can:
Resume domestic travel and refrain from testing before or after travel or self-quarantine after travel
Refrain from testing before leaving the United States for international travel (unless required by the destination) and refrain from self-quarantine after arriving back in the United States
Refrain from testing following a known exposure, if asymptomatic, with some exceptions for specific settings
Refrain from quarantine following a known exposure if asymptomatic
Refrain from routine screening testing if feasible
Walensky said science, not political pressure, prompted the CDC to change its guidance.
She said in the last two weeks, COVID-19 cases have dropped by one-third, and now, adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15 are eligible for the Pfizer shot.
She also cited three studies -- one from Israel and one from the United States -- that show vaccines work.
“We have had a coalescence of more science that has emerged just in the last week,” she said. “One is the effectiveness of the vaccines in general in real-world populations. One is the effectiveness against variants, which was just published last week. And then the effectiveness in preventing transmissibility.”
The Associated Press and CNN Wire contributed to this report.
(WATCH: CDC eases mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated Americans)
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