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Bars, movie theaters to reopen as NC moves into next phase of recovery

Posted September 30, 2020 5:01 a.m. EDT
Updated September 30, 2020 11:30 p.m. EDT

— Gov. Roy Cooper said Wednesday that coronavirus cases are stable enough in North Carolina to move the state into the next phase of reopening businesses and resuming social activities during the pandemic.

The shift to Phase 3, which will allow bars to reopen for outdoor seating and movie theaters and amusement parks to reopen, takes effect at 5 p.m. Friday.

"We're cautiously encouraged about where we are in this pandemic," Cooper said at a news briefing. "The virus continues to spread, so we must take the next steps methodically and responsibly, and we must rely on North Carolinians taking personal responsibility to protect others."

Cooper last week signaled more easing of restrictions by announcing that stadiums and amphitheaters with at least 10,000 seats could provide limited seating for fans – 7 percent of capacity – for sports events and outdoor concerts.

On Monday, the state Department of Health and Human Services issued an order to start allowing indoor visits at nursing homes that have gone at least two weeks without a coronavirus infection and are in counties where the overall positive rate on virus tests is below 10 percent.

Other changes under Phase 3 include the following:

  • Smaller outdoor arenas can seat up to 100 people or 30 percent of capacity, whichever is less, but indoor arenas and auditoriums are limited to 25 people.
  • Movie theaters, reception and meeting venues, bingo parlors and arcades also can have up to 100 people or 30 percent of capacity, whichever is less. No gatherings would be allowed in the lobby.
  • Bars cannot serve alcohol indoors but can have an outdoor seating area of up to 100 people, 30 percent of the outdoor capacity or seven people per 1,000 square feet, whichever is least.
  • Amusement parks can operate at 30 percent capacity outdoors, but indoor rides and attractions must remain closed. They can operate restaurants, concessions, gift shops and other indoor spaces.

All venues must abide by regulations for social distancing, wearing masks and sanitization.

The statewide mandate for everyone 5 and older to wear masks in public remains in effect, as does the 11 p.m. cutoff on alcohol sales at bars and restaurants for on-site consumption and the limits on mass gatherings of 25 people indoors and 50 people outdoors.

"We are not going to open. It makes no sense for us to open," said Amanda Laroque, owner of The Goat bar, on Western Boulevard in Raleigh, calling the 30 percent outdoor limit "ridiculous."

"The numbers are just not there," Laroque said. "For us, it would not be worthwhile. It is just another punch in the gut."

Zack Medford, president of the North Carolina Bar and Tavern Association, said many bars could come to the same decision, calling the outdoor limits "pointless."

"While that is a small step in the right direction, over 75 percent of bars in North Carolina have zero outdoor space," Medford said. "We have to come up with a substantial way for these bars to survive, and opening just outdoors is not going to cut it."

Most locales have no occupancy certificates for outdoor seating, he noted, so rather than the 100-person or 30 percent limits, they would have to stick with seven people per 1,000 square feet. That means they would have to have 3,000 square feet of patio space to get the 20 customers needed to break even.

Raleigh officials said some bars have already applied to use outdoor space, similar to what the city has allowed for restaurants in recent months. Officials said they are still working through the executive order to determine what customer capacities would be possible.

"We are on the brink of extinction, and we have got to make some changes," said Medford, who previously challenged Cooper's restrictions in court and personally wrote to the governor seeking some relief. "The damage has already been done across the state. I know of a dozen bars that will never reopen."

Mike Lombardo, the owner of Lucky B's bar in the Glenwood South area of Raleigh, said he plans to reopen on Friday.

“I'm looking forward to the weekend and how it plays out," Lombardo said. "It’s going to be a struggle to pay the bills, but as long as we get income in, we can just start regenerating our business.

“We’re finding out now with some of our staff, we try to keep in contact with them but we’re finding out a couple of them are moving."

Elsewhere, the Carowinds theme park near Charlotte doesn't plan to open under the new guidelines, preferring to wait until next spring, a spokeswoman said.

Cinemark said it would reopen all of its North Carolina movie theaters on Oct. 9, including the Raleigh Grande.

"I have absolutely no expectation of what will happen," Bill Peebles, who owns the Rialto Theatre in Raleigh.

The Rialto has been ready for moviegoers for weeks, with every other row blocked off, social distancing markers in the lobby and ticket line and plexiglass partitions at the concession stand. Still, Peebles said he's not ready to reopen Friday when Phase 3 begins.

"Reopening a theater is not like you can turn the light switch on," he said. "You have to have product to show, a schedule with your employees. You have to advertise it properly. You have to have the film you want to show. All of these things can’t be done in 20 or 48 hours."

"Our stability is fragile," Cooper said. "With cooler weather and the flu season come new challenges."

His latest executive order outlining the new pandemic rules runs only three weeks, through Oct. 23, allowing state health officials to continue to monitor conditions through the first month of fall and as the flu season progresses.

DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said North Carolina's coronavirus caseload remains fairly stable, as does the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19. The rate of positive virus cases is approaching the 5 percent target, she said.

"Our steady, evidence-based approach has kept us from those dire circumstances other states have faced and has allowed us to responsibly ease measures," Cohen said. "We cannot take anything for granted. Across the country, cases are beginning to increase again."

Cooper said the primary goal is to keep the virus in check so that all students can return to classrooms. School districts can start holding in-person classes next Monday for children in kindergarten through the fifth grade, but the governor said there is no timeline for reopening middle and high schools.

"We really could beat down the spread of this virus if everyone had personal responsibility, was careful and cautious," he said. "We could move a lot faster when that happens. We can make it easier to get our children in schools safely, make it easier to ease these restrictions and make it easier to stop the spread of this virus."

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