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

Cooper: Face Masks Will Be Mandatory; NC Won't Move To Phase 3 Yet

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N.C. Department of Public Safety
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North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper wears a face mask as he provides an update on COVID-19 in this file photo.

Gov. Roy Cooper says North Carolina will stay in its current phase of COVID-19 restrictions for three more weeks and that most residents will be required to wear face masks in public when social distancing isn't possible. 

Cooper's announcement comes as the number of cases of the coronavirus in the state continues to climb.

"Since the beginning of this pandemic, I've been clear that data and science would lead the way," Cooper said. "In following that standard, it's clear that our numbers will keep us from moving ahead to the next phase of easing restrictions. ... This is not where we planned to be or wanted to be." 

Cooper's announcement also comes as he faces mounting pressure to ease restrictions that have hampered the economy and left many workers reeling. More than 1 million people in the state have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic began. 

An executive order that begins at 5 p.m. Friday requires residents to wear face masks in most situations where social distancing of at least six feet isn't possible. That includes customers and employees at retailers and restaurants along with workers in manufacturing, meat-processing, agricultural and other industries. Folks with medical conditions that would be worsened by masks don't have to wear them, and neither do children younger than 11. 

"Face coverings are a simple way to control this virus while protecting ourselves, our families and other people," Cooper said. 

Cooper said law enforcement officers could give citations to businesses that fail to enforce mask requirements. 

Several local governments already made it mandatory that residents wear face masks. Raleigh and Greensboro already did so, and while Charlotte didn't, Mayor Vi Lyles called on Cooper to make it a statewide requirement

The current level of restrictions — Phase 2 of 3 — had been scheduled to expire Friday, but North Carolina has seen a surge in cases and hospitalizations for COVID-19 in recent weeks.

As of Wednesday morning, 56,174 cases of the coronavirus had been confirmed by laboratory testing in North Carolina, including 1,721 since Tuesday. At least 1,271 people in the state have died from COVID-19 complications, and 906 people were hospitalized for treatment of the virus on Wednesday. 

On Monday -- the most recent day for which recovery estimates are available -- state health officials said it was likely that 36,921 people had recovered from COVID-19. That's about 69% of confirmed infections at the time. 

But also Monday, state Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen described COVID-19 trends in North Carolina as moving in "the wrong direction" because hospitalizations were increasing the percentage of tests coming back positive for the virus have been high in recent weeks. 

As of Wednesday, 791,285 tests had been completed in the state. Of the 17,457 completed Tuesday, 8% came back positive. That number hasn't dipped below 8% since May 27. 

Cohen said Wednesday that the state had enough hospital capacity but that she was wary about numbers in the future. 

The Charlotte region has more confirmed cases of the virus than any other area of the Carolinas, though it's also the most heavily populated metro area. As of Wednesday morning, the state was reporting 9,333 confirmed cases of the virus and 140 deaths in Mecklenburg County alone. 

When North Carolina's COVID-19 restrictions reached their height in March and April, dine-in service at restaurants was stopped, most gatherings were effectively banned and businesses that were deemed essential had capacity limits. Those restrictions began to ease toward the end of April as the state entered the first phase of Cooper's three-part reopening plan.

The state entered its second phase on May 22, but it was more limited than initially planned. While restaurants and some high-contact services like hair salons were allowed to reopen for in-person service with safety restrictions, other businesses like gyms and bars had to stay closed. 

Cooper said Wednesday that the state could move into Phase 3 on July 17. 

Eugene Woods, CEO of Charlotte-based Atrium Health, said more than 1 million masks will be donated to underserved communities. 

You can read more details about Wednesday's executive order here.

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