Gov. Roy Cooper announced he's extending North Carolina's stay-at-home order until May 8, saying the state was "not ready to lift restrictions" in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
"I will not risk the health of our people or our hospitals, and easing these restrictions now would do that," Cooper said Thursday.
Cooper's announcement comes as some North Carolinians push for easing restrictions to boost the state's economy. Protesters from the group ReOpen NC rallied in Raleigh on Tuesday to demand Cooper lift his stay-at-home order soon. Still, others, like Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio, have urged Cooper to extend his order out of the fear that lifting restrictions would lead to a spike in cases of the coronavirus.
At least 700,000 North Carolinians have filed for unemployment benefits since March 15, more than 606,000 of them directly related to the pandemic.
As of Thursday morning, the state Health and Human Services Department was reporting 7,608 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and at least 253 deaths related to COVID-19.
Cooper says reopening will happen gradually — in three phases of loosening restrictions that will take weeks to unfold. And the governor didn't commit Thursday to necessarily starting the first phase after May 8, saying the start date "will depend on the facts and the science."
"We know we won't go back to the way we lived in January or February of this year anytime soon," Cooper said. "We need a vaccine, and we need more ways, such as antibody tests, to determine our level of immunity. But if we keep protecting ourselves and go back to work and play carefully, we can rebuild the damage this virus has done to our state."
The governor said before reopening starts, the state will need to see two weeks of decreased levels of COVID-19-like illnesses, lab-confirmed cases of the coronavirus and hospitalizations.
In the first phase, people will be allowed to go out for "nonessential" reasons, like shopping, but stores will have to enforce social distancing, and gatherings of 10 or more people will still be prohibited. Parks that have been closed would reopen, but employers would still be encouraged to let people work from home.
The second phase could start two to three weeks later, and that's when the stay-at-home order will be formally lifted. That's also when dine-in service at restaurants can resume and bars can reopen – along with gyms and personal care businesses. Social distancing would still be enforced at those businesses.
Worship services and entertainment could resume then, too, but with capacity limited.
The third phase starts at least a month after the second begins. That's when restrictions on vulnerable populations will be eased – though with social distancing encouraged – and businesses like restaurants and entertainment venues can increase capacity. The number of people allowed in gatherings would increase in both the second and third phases.
Cooper said "rigorous restrictions" on nursing homes and other congregant-care facilities would stay in place throughout all three phases.
State Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said Thursday North Carolina has seen a decline in the number of people seeking care who have COVID-19 symptoms, but said that to lift restrictions, the state needs to see a decline or leveling off of other metrics.
Cohen said the state will continue to monitor the number of daily new coronavirus cases, along with the percentage of people who test positive out of the total number tested and the number of people in the hospital because of the coronavirus. North Carolina needs to increase its daily testing capacity to between 5,000 and 7,000 people per day, according to Cohen. The state currently tests between 2,500 and 3,000.
She said North Carolina also needs to hire 250 additional contact tracers to bring the state’s total contact-tracing workforce to 500 and get enough personal protective equipment for health care workers to last 30 days. Cohen said the state currently has less than a 30-day supply of N95 masks and gowns.
Both Atrium Health and Novant Health — the dominant hospital systems in the Charlotte region — said Thursday they support a stay-at-home order extension. Spokespeople said the order has kept their hospital systems from being overwhelmed by coronavirus patients and said the state should take a “phased, responsible approach” to lifting restrictions.
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