RALEIGH – North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper on Friday immediately ended state capacity restrictions on businesses and almost all remaining statewide mandates to wear masks, and returned after 15 months marked by COVID-19 lockdowns and limits, back to almost normal operation.
The Democratic governor of the nation’s ninth largest state announced the lifting of the collection restrictions 2 1/2 weeks before June 1 – the date by which he previously said he wanted to exempt the state from social distancing requirements. The restrictions have slowly been rolled back over the past few months.
Cooper said he was urged to act through continued stable and improved statistical trends for the coronavirus, as well as the decision by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Thursday to provide guidance on how to wear masks indoors for people who are fully vaccinated. The number of daily confirmed cases and hospitalizations related to COVID-19 continues to decline in North Carolina.
“This is a big step forward in living our lives as they were before the pandemic. That’s good, ”Cooper said at a press conference. He warned the virus would remain in the state and urged all adults to get vaccinated.
Cooper’s new policy removes the requirement that people wear masks indoors. The limits for mass gatherings where 100 people were inside and 200 outside will also be lifted. Restaurants – which were limited to 75% capacity – and bars, reception rooms and sports arenas with a capacity of 50% indoors and outdoors can now be fully occupied again.
According to Cooper’s office, a mask mandate continues to exist in public schools, healthcare facilities, and means of transport such as buses, trains, and airports. Friday’s changes also won’t stop private companies and corporations, as well as local governments, from continuing to require masks or limit capacity if they so choose.
Still, the changes open the doors for many companies and government agencies to get most of their employees back into personal work.
People who are not vaccinated are still encouraged to wear face covering indoors and in other areas where the risk is higher. The state Department of Health and Human Services will continue to make recommendations on social distancing and safety for all citizens.
The lifting of the mask mandate in North Carolina was not expected until June or July, as Cooper initially wanted to have two-thirds of the adults at least partially vaccinated. As of Friday, only 51% of the adult population had received at least one dose of vaccine, and the number of weekly vaccinations has fallen sharply recently.
Almost 72,000 first-dose vaccinations were given in the past week, a decrease of almost 80% from four weeks earlier. Government and private marketing efforts are looking for ways to incentivize people who are not vaccinated to get a chance.
Cooper issued the first restrictions on commerce and schools in March 2020. A nationwide mask mandate was granted last June.
North Carolina health officials have recorded over 989,000 positive cases since the pandemic began, according to the Department of Health. More than 12,860 people with confirmed cases have died. More than 900 people are currently being hospitalized with the coronavirus – up from a peak of around 4,000 in mid-January.
Cooper’s announcement comes after reported cases were dropped on-site for the third straight week. The Robeson County Health Department reported 106 new cases in the county between May 8 and Friday, up from 126 between May 1 and May 7.
A total of 16,871 virus cases were reported in Robeson County during the pandemic.
Three virus-related deaths were reported between May 8 and Friday, up from two between May 1-7. That brings the county’s pandemic death toll to 238.
The county’s test positivity rate was 5.8%, said Bill Smith, director of the county’s health department, on Wednesday, the second straight week that it was above the 5% target.
The count’s number of vaccinations is lagging behind the nationwide rate, Smith said. According to statistics from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, 26,694 first doses of the vaccine and 23,746 second doses were given in Robeson County as of Friday lunchtime.
Almost 80% of the population aged 65 and over are vaccinated nationwide. That number is less than 50% in Robeson County, Smith said. As of Monday, the nine most recent virus-related deaths in the county were people aged 60 and over.
“While we have emphasized the participation of the younger population, it must be noted that the seniors continue to be particularly susceptible to the virus, which is often passed on to them from the younger population who are less adherent to distancing and masking prevention measures,” Smith said .
Vaccines will remain readily available across the county, Smith said. People 12 years and older can now get the Pfizer vaccine.
“This can be important as vaccinations may be required for things like cruises, camps, or other places where people congregate,” Smith said. “The inherent good, of course, is that it helps stop the transmission of the virus, which should be important in and of itself.”
UNC Health Southeastern reported six virus-positive patients in isolation at its medical center at 11 a.m. on Friday, up from eight on May 7, with no further potential positive results investigated.
There are six employees quarantined for possible exposure to the virus, up from two on May 7.
The University of North Carolina at Pembroke reports seven active cases in its student body, two in faculty and staff, and none among subcontractors late Friday. This includes four new student cases and one case among faculties and staff since May 7th.
For the spring semester, there were 71 student cases, 28 among faculties and staff, and eight among subcontractors.
In the NCDHHS County Alert System, as it has been since late March, Robeson County continues to be rated as light yellow for moderate impact. Among the adjacent counties, counties Columbus and Hoke are classified as yellow for significant impact and counties as Cumberland, Bladen and Scotland as orange for significant impact.
There are no counties in the state that are rated red for the most critical impact. There are 19 counties divided into orange, 56 yellow and 24 light yellow. Henderson County, located south of Asheville, is the state’s only green county, the best category.
Since the county alert system was last updated two weeks ago, 60 counties stayed in the same category, 32 improved, and eight deteriorated.
8,840 new virus cases of NCDHHS were reported nationwide between May 8 and Friday, up from 10,746 between May 1 and May 7. That brings the total pandemic to 989,338 reported cases in the state.
82 virus-related deaths were reported between May 8 and Friday, up from 129 between May 1-7. There have been 12,862 virus-related deaths in North Carolina.
As of Friday, 926 virus-related hospitalizations were reported nationwide, up from 1,006 on May 7.
The NCDHHS reports that 3,158,550 first doses and 2,857,019 second doses of the vaccine were given in North Carolina.