Local News

Cooper: No new mask mandate, but 'all options remain on table'

Posted August 18, 2021 8:19 a.m. EDT
Updated August 18, 2021 7:39 p.m. EDT

— As the coronavirus' Delta variant rages across North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper said Wednesday that he's not ready to put a statewide mask mandate back in place, but he added that "all options remain on the table."

Cooper said his administration remains focused on getting more people vaccinated as the best way to quell the virus.

Another 5,256 coronavirus infections were reported in North Carolina on Wednesday, and the state has averaged more than 5,200 cases a day for the past week. Nearly 3,000 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 across the state, – five times as many as one month ago – and about a quarter of them are in intensive care.

"We are experiencing the fastest acceleration in cases since the pandemic started," Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said during a news conference. "If cases keep increasing at the current rate, we will pass that January peak in a matter of weeks."

Cohen called the spike in hospitalizations "alarming," noting that many hospitals across the state are so strained by COVID-19 patients that they are having difficulty responding to other health care needs.

"This is exactly the situation we've been working to avoid," she said.

Only 59 percent of North Carolinians age 18 or older are fully vaccinated, slightly below the national average of 62 percent. Meanwhile, 63 percent in North Carolina have had one dose of vaccine, much further behind the 72 percent nationally.

Cooper said he has asked the federal government for more National Guard help to distribute vaccine across the state.

"So many people are continuing to get vaccinated. We know that's the way out," he said. "People, businesses and schools know what to do with masks and safety protocols. ... Right now, we're going to focus our energy on vaccinations, but all of the other [restrictions] are there and available for us to use if we need to."

Cooper lifted much of the statewide mask mandate in May, and rules requiring them in schools expired at the end of July. He said repeatedly on Wednesday that leaving the decision on masks at school up to local officials will lead to more buy-in, so he's not interested in issuing a new mandate.

Mask mandates by school system

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About 75 percent of public school students across the state are now under local mask mandates, he said, and Cohen noted that a dozen school districts have adopted mandates in just the past week. Both officials said they expect more districts to follow in the coming days, and they urged all school officials in North Carolina to require masks.

"We encourage local officials to take action to protect their citizens," Cooper said.

"We need to layer protections now. We need to get vaccinated. We need to use masks. We need to make sure, if you're having symptoms, to get tested," Cohen said. "We have to all do them together. It's always been a joint effort since the beginning of this, and it still remains."

Outside of schools, Wake County officials said they plan to implement a mask mandate at 7 a.m. Friday for all public, indoor spaces, including grocery stores, restaurants and retail shops. The mandate covers unincorporated areas of the county, as well as the towns of Garner, Knightdale, Morrisville, Rolesville and Zebulon.

Raleigh officials adopted a mask mandate last Friday, and Cary's went into effect Wednesday evening. Masks remain optional in Apex, Fuquay-Varina, Holly Springs, Wake Forest and Wendell.

Cooper last month asked businesses to help fight the pandemic by requiring their workers to get vaccinated or submit to routine virus testing and mask requirements, and he said many have stepped up in recent weeks.

Concert promoter LiveNation already requires its staff to be vaccinated and will start requiring concertgoers to show proof of vaccination or a negative virus test in early October, company spokeswoman Jeannine Benson said.

At a recent Dead & Co. concert at the Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek, 70 percent of concertgoers showed proof of vaccination, Benson said.

"It's been great to see that this model has encouraged people to go out and get vaccinated, which is one of the best things we can all do to take care of one another," she said.

With the Biden administration opening vaccine booster shots up to the public in five weeks, Cohen said state officials are working with health care providers to ramp up vaccination clinics again. Many details still need to be worked out, however, she said.

"We definitely have a lot of work ahead of us," she said.

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