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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

NC Governor Lifts Capacity Limits, Indoor Mask Mandate In Most Settings

NC Department of Public Safety

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday immediately ended the state's capacity limits on businesses and nearly all the remaining statewide mask-wearing mandates, returning the state to almost normal operations after 15 months marked by COVID-19 lockdowns and limits.

The Democratic governor of the nation's ninth-largest state announced the lifting of gathering limit requirements 2 1/2 weeks before June 1 — the date by which he had previously said he wanted to rid the state of social distancing requirements. Restrictions had been scaled back slowly in recent months.

“This is a big step forward in living our lives the way they were before the pandemic. That’s good,” Cooper said at a news conference. He warned that the virus remains in the state and urged all adults to get vaccinated.

Masks will still be required in places like schools and on buses.

This comes after new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued Thursday that said fully vaccinated adults could safely resume activities indoors or outdoors without masks or distancing, in both small and large gatherings.

“You can do things you stopped doing because of the pandemic,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said on Thursday, according to NPR.

Walensky said the CDC’s new policy is based on recent real world studies from Israel and the U.S. on people who have been vaccinated.

North Carolina’s mask mandate has been in place for nearly a year, though Cooper ended the requirement that people wear face masks outdoors in late April.

Cooper’s new directives repeal the order that required people to wear masks indoors. Also lifted are limits to mass gatherings, which had been at 100 people indoors and 200 outdoors. Restaurants — which had been limited to 75% capacity — and bars, receptions spaces and sports arenas capped at 50% capacity indoors and outdoors can now revert to full seating.

A mask mandate still remains in place within public schools, health care facilities and on transportation like buses, trains and airports, according to Cooper’s office. Friday’s changes also don’t prevent private businesses and entities, as well as local governments, from still requiring masks or limiting capacity if they choose.

Still, the changes open the doors for many companies and government agencies to bring most of their employees back to in-person work.

People who aren’t vaccinated will still be urged to wear face coverings indoors around crowds and other areas where risks are higher. The state Department of Health and Human Services will still make social distancing and safety recommendations for all citizens.

The mask-mandate repeal in North Carolina hadn’t been expected to happen until June or July, since Cooper had wanted to first get two-thirds of adults at least partially vaccinated. As of Friday, only 51% of the adult population had received at least one dose of a vaccination, or roughly 41% of the state’s total population.

Nearly 72,000 first-dose vaccinations were administered last week, an almost 80% decline compared to four weeks earlier. Government and private marketing efforts are looking at ways to incentivize people who aren’t vaccinated to get a shot.

Cooper issued the first restrictions affecting commerce and schools in March 2020. A statewide mask mandate was issued last June.

North Carolina health officials have recorded over 989,000 positive cases since the pandemic began, according to state health department data. More than 12,860 people with confirmed cases have died. More than 900 people with the coronavirus are currently hospitalized — in contrast to a peak of about 4,000 in mid-January.

In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster has never instituted a statewide mask requirement. On Wednesday, McMaster issued an order preventing schools and local governments from creating mask mandates.

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Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literature and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. Reach her at cdonnelly@wfae.org or on Twitter @donnellyclairee.