NC Bars, Theaters, Sports Arenas Allowed To Open As Cooper Eases Restrictions
North Carolina will allow bars, movie theaters and indoor sports arenas to open for the first time in nearly a year as Gov. Roy Cooper eased coronavirus restrictions Wednesday amid declining state trends in cases and hospitalizations for COVID-19.
Those indoor facilities still will have severe restrictions — bars and movie theaters only allowed to operate at 30% capacity and large sports facilities such as Spectrum Center at 15% capacity — but the executive order that goes into effect Friday at 5 p.m. represents the first such loosening of restrictions in North Carolina during the pandemic.
“I do think that easing restrictions, as long as people come back carefully, can help these businesses,” Cooper said in a news conference. “We know that many of them are struggling. This won’t bring them fully back. But we want to put health and safety first, and we think this move does that.”
Cooper also lifted the 10 p.m. curfew that has been in effect since Dec. 8 and raised mass gathering limits to 25 people indoors and 50 people outdoors.
Outdoor bars, venues and other businesses operating at 30% capacity also will no longer have a 100-person capacity limit.
Cooper stressed that the mandatory face mask order still is in effect, however, and encouraged residents in the state to continue working remotely when possible.
"When it comes to easing some restrictions, we're depending on people to be responsible," Cooper said.
Dr. Mandy Cohen, the head of North Carolina's Department of Health and Human Services, said that with the state's improving coronavirus trends, it is "the right time to take this step forward."
"Our cases are down. Our percent positive's been down. Our hospitalizations are down," Cohen said.
But she cautioned that residents should still take precautions like wearing a mask when not actively eating or drinking at a restaurant or bar. She also emphasized that restrictions could be reinstated if trends worsen.
"It is just a step," Cohen said. "We’ll watch our trends and if we see more viral spread in those areas, we’ll reassess as we go.”
A 50% capacity restriction still remains on restaurants, breweries, retail stores, gyms, museums, aquariums, barbers and salons, pool and outdoor amusement parks.
On-site service of alcohol has been extended to 11 p.m.
Under the state's county alert system that ranks community spread, 27 counties are now in the "red" zone, signifying "critical" spread. That's down from 61 counties two weeks ago. Forty counties, including Mecklenburg, are "orange" for substantial spread, and 33 counties are "yellow" for significant spread.
The loosened restrictions was welcome news to area bars and sports facilities and teams such as the Charlotte Hornets. The Hornets immediately issued a statement expressing gratitude that they will be permitted to have about 3,000 fans in their 20,000-seat arena, under the order that expires March 26.
The Hornets said they have upgraded air filtration and purification in Spectrum Center, and added: “We have remained in contact with state and county officials, as well as the NBA, throughout the last year and are preparing a plan that we believe will allow fans to safely return to Spectrum Center in the near future."
The Charlotte Knights issued a statement Wednesday afternoon saying the team was "very pleased" with Cooper's announcement. The team's first home game of the 2021 season is set for Tuesday, April 13. The governor's announcement also clears the way for up to 28,000 fans at the Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race on May 30.
And the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes immediately issued a statement saying they will begin hosting fans March 4 in a game against the Detroit Red Wings.
And by evening, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools announced that beginning March 1, it will allow 500 spectators at outdoor athletic events — 300 for the home team and 200 for the visiting team. The current limit of 100 people at outdoor events will remain in place through the end of the week, CMS said.
Schools participating in NCHSAA basketball playoffs will begin play Saturday, and CMS will release further information when more details are known.
North Carolina reported 3,346 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, with a 6% positivity rate, while 1,530 people currently are hospitalized with the virus. Daily case numbers and hospitalizations have not been that low since mid-November, and the positivity rate has not been that low since late October.
"We are slowing the spread and saving lives," Cohen said. "At the same time, we face a new challenge. Those new COVID-19 variants are a wild card. We know these variants are here in our state and are more contagious."
Variants from both the United Kingdom and South Africa have been found in COVID-19 test samples in North Carolina, and have been shown to be up to 50% more contagious than the original coronavirus strain.
"We’ll continue to let the science and the data guide our decisions," Cooper said. "If we see that kind of variant is causing problems, we'll discuss it with health officials and scientists and we’ll do what we need to do."
Read the full executive order below.