@NCCapitol

@NCCapitol

Citing bad coronavirus trends, Cooper extends Phase 2 business closures, issues mask mandate

Posted June 24, 2020 3:00 p.m. EDT
Updated June 25, 2020 12:15 a.m. EDT

— North Carolina is in no shape right now to open more businesses and resume more social activities during the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Roy Cooper said Wednesday.

Citing metrics that continue to rise instead of leveling off or decreasing, Cooper extended Phase 2 of his three-part pandemic response plan for at least three more weeks. He also issued a statewide mandate that people age 11 and older cover their faces in public, as of 5 p.m. Friday.

"We're taking this pause right now to make sure we can level out our numbers before moving on." he said at a news conference. "Everybody needs to get with this program to move our economy forward."

The state recorded its second-highest one-day total of new virus infections on Wednesday, at 1,721. Overall, more than 56,000 people in North Carolina have been infected since early March, with about one-sixth of the cases coming in the last week alone. Nearly 1,300 people statewide have died during the pandemic.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19, the illness associated with the virus, also has repeatedly set new highs in recent weeks, topping 900 people for the first time on Tuesday.

"These numbers we see are a stark warning, and we must pay attention," the governor said. "The numbers will keep us from moving ahead."

The executive order that moved the state into Phase 2 last month had been set to expire on Friday.

Businesses that were not allowed to reopen in Phase 2, such as gyms and bars, have repeatedly pressed Cooper to lift his restrictions, saying they can operate safely under the same restrictions that restaurants were allowed to follow to resume dine-in service a month ago: limit the number of customers to half capacity, practice social distancing, have staff wear masks and follow strict cleaning protocols.

Gym owners and workers were out in force at the legislature Wednesday to urge lawmakers to override Cooper's veto of a bill that would allow gyms to reopen, despite the governor's closure order. The measure also would allow bars to serve customers at temporary outdoor seating and for restaurants to use outdoor seating to expand their capacity.

The effort was unsuccessful, however, as the House failed to override the veto.

"I just don’t understand," Tori Fox said after learning she couldn't reopen her Barre3 studio in Raleigh for a while.

"A lot of it just really makes me sad," agreed Jordyn Matthews, whose once thriving treadHAPPY fitness center opened in January only to close eight weeks later.

At this point, they both said, they don’t know what’s worse, the mental or the financial toll.

"We are fortunate to have N.C. State as our landlords. They’ve been very kind, as well as our banks and our small loans, but their patience can only go so long," Matthews said. "There is this scary endgame that this may not work."

"I love our community and our team, so I’ll do whatever it takes to stay open, but these are challenging times," Fox said.

Both treadHAPPY and Barre3 are offering alternative options like online and outdoor classes, but Matthews and Fox both said those offerings don't bring in nearly enough revenue and don't provide customers the same experience.

Cooper said gyms would be among the first group of businesses he would look to reopen on July 17, at the expiration of his new executive order, along with museums and playgrounds.

"In Roy Cooper's North Carolina, the governor can walk with a group of protesters with no mask on, but you can’t take your son or daughter to a playground," Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said in a statement. "Rioters can break windows and set fires with impunity, but you can’t exercise on an elliptical machine. We’re assured that masses of mask-less people gathered together in the streets caused no rise in cases, yet we’re now all required to wear masks because the danger is too great.

"The inconsistencies and hypocrisy continue to eat away at the trust in and credibility of this administration," added Berger, R-Rockingham.

Lawmakers have repeatedly tried to force Cooper's hand on reopening. Sending him five bills in recent weeks that would override his closure orders on everything from bowling alleys to wedding reception venues to Fourth of July parades.

"The virus is still very prevalent in our state," said Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Although about 17,000 people are tested for coronavirus on an average day, Cohen said, that alone isn't responsible for the growing caseload. Between 8 to 10 percent of tests are positive each day, she said, which is much higher than officials' target of 5 percent.

Virus-related hospitalizations have been on the rise for a month, growing by 56 percent in that time, Cooper and Cohen said.

"We have the power to get these trends moving back in the right direction," Cohen said in urging people to follow the "three W's" of wearing masks, washing hands and waiting at least 6 feet away from others in public.

"Face coverings only fully work when we all do it," she said. "We all have a role to play, and it starts with the three W's. If each of us commits to these simple actions, we can fight back against this virus."

Exceptions to the mask requirement include people who cannot wear one for medical or religious reasons, people who are eating or exercising, people who are in their own vehicle and people who could be at risk for injury if wearing one at work.

People will be on the system that they fall into one of the exceptions if they aren't wearing a mask in public, according to the executive order.

Law enforcement can cite businesses that don't require their staff and encourage their customers to wear masks, he said, and officers can charge customers who refuse to comply after being asked with trespass and remove them from a business.

Halifax County Sheriff Wes Tripp and Sampson County Sheriff Jimmy Thornton posted on social media on Wednesday night that they have no plans to enforce the mask requirement.

"The wearing of a mask is a personal decision, not one of a governor in Raleigh," Tripp posted on the sheriff's office's Facebook page.

"It is my belief that Governor Cooper's executive order mandating face coverings by all citizens in public is not only unconstitutional, but unenforceable," Thornton posted on his Facebook page.

Cooper has encouraged people to wear masks for weeks but held off on issuing a mask mandate earlier. He said there was no proof earlier that they contained the coronavirus, but now there is "overwhelming evidence" to that effect.

Bank of America, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, the Carolina Panthers, Lowe's Home Improvement, Atrium Health, Honeywell and Red Ventures have committed to providing 1 million masks to needy communities statewide in the coming weeks, according to Eugene Woods, Atrium's president and chief executive.

"It’s essential that businesses work in concert with health professionals so people can get back to work. In fact, it is the key pathway to recovery," Woods said.

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