By Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice on June 24, 2020
On a day when North Carolina announced its second-highest level of new daily COVID-19 cases (1,721) and hospitalizations (906) since the pandemic began, Governor Roy Cooper announced the state was pausing any further re-opening for at least three weeks, until July 17. Among other things, that means that businesses such as bars and gyms remain closed for now.
Revealing the decision to remain in the current “Safer-at-Home’” Phase Two during a June 24 press briefing, Cooper also said the state would now require face coverings in public places, indoor and outdoor, when social distancing is not possible. There are some exemptions, but the governor also made clear that businesses and organizations are responsible for ensuring that employees and customers adhered to the face covering requirement and that they could be cited for failure to do so.
“The numbers we see [tracking COVID-19] are a stark warning, and we must pay attention,” said Cooper in revealing the decision. “I’m concerned.” Later, in response to a reporter’s question, he added that, “These numbers clearly tell us we should not be moving forward with easing these restrictions.”
The four key numbers Cooper cited were reviewed at the press briefing by North Carolina Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen. Referring to the number of people presenting in medical facilities with “COVID-like symptoms,” Cohen said, “there’s been an increase in that metric in the last few weeks.” As for the number of lab-confirmed cases, now totaling 56,174 overall in North Carolina, Cohen said, “the trend has continued to be elevated through most of our Phase Two data.”
Cohen also expressed concern about two other metrics. One is the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests out of all tests administered, which is now in the 8% range as opposed to the desired 5% target. The other is the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations, where the “trajectory…is rising,” in Cohen’s words. She did express confidence that for now, “We still have capacity in our health care system,” to handle the outbreak.
The state’s decision to halt the easing of restrictions and to require face coverings seemed increasingly inevitable in light of recent events. In the past few weeks, during their frequent press briefings, Cooper and Cohen repeatedly and consistently expressed their concern over the key trends in the outbreak’s trajectory. And the push to require face coverings in public picked up steam when the city of Raleigh implemented such a measure on June 19. In addition, the mayor of Charlotte had recently asked Cooper to implement such a requirement statewide.
On June 21, Dare County began requiring the use of face coverings in public places when social distancing wasn’t possible. That came after members of the Dare County Control Group reversed a previous decision that recommended, but did not mandate, their use. There has been a notable increase in recent COVID-19 cases in the county, with 20 new cases reported in the last four days.
While the governor declined to blame state residents for some responsibility in the spread of COVID-19 in the state, he did say, in response to a reporter’s question, that, “I think there are people intentionally not wearing masks and intentionally not social distancing.”
The decision not to further re-open the state for at least three weeks will certainly come as a disappointment to gym owners, who were slated to gather in Raleigh on June 24 to advocate for legislative action to allow them to open. In the press briefing, Cooper did indicate that he would look to re-open gyms, playgrounds and museums if the data regarding the outbreak had improved by July 17. But the governor pointedly declined to mention bars as a possible candidate for opening in a next phase.
Having revealed one significant decision today, Cooper noted that the state would also have to make another one by next week. July 1 is the date by which state officials are expected to announce how public schools will open this August. The three options on the table include one with minimal social distancing, another with more social distancing that would mix classroom attendance with remote online learning, and a third choice that would entail only remote learning.