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Cooper tightens mask mandate as one-fifth of NC counties now coronavirus hotspots

Posted November 23, 2020 2:00 p.m. EST
Updated December 9, 2020 7:58 p.m. EST

— Gov. Roy Cooper reinforced statewide coronavirus restrictions on Monday as a growing number of North Carolina counties are considered hotspots for viral spread.

Less than a week after rolling out a county alert system to illustrate where the virus was spreading fastest, the number of counties in the red zone has doubled from 10 to 20. The number in the orange zone with substantial spread grew from 43 to 46.

State officials had planned to update the map every four weeks, but Cooper said the changes were so striking over one week that officials couldn't wait three more weeks.

"I have a stark warning for North Carolinians today: We are in danger," he said during a briefing on the pandemic. "This is a pivotal moment in our fight against coronavirus. Our actions now will determine the fate of many."

COVID-19 County Alert System

In central North Carolina, Vance, Alamance and Robeson counties tipped into the red zone, while Sampson County was able to improve from red last week into the orange category. Wilson and Hoke counties remain in the red zone.

Coronavirus infections have sharply increased in recent weeks, hitting a record 4,514 reported Sunday. Although the number of new cases dropped back to 2,419 on Monday, the rolling, seven-day average remains at a record level, with 3,570 per day over the last week.

Hospitalizations also were at a record on Monday, with 1,601 people being treated for the virus in hospitals statewide. To date, more than 5,000 North Carolinians have died during the pandemic, with another five deaths reported Monday.

One metric trending in the right direction is the percentage of coronavirus tests that come back positive. It was 6.6 percent on Saturday, the most recent day for which numbers are available, which was the lowest level in two weeks. The percent positive has been trending downward since hitting 9.4 percent on Nov. 16.

"This is a call to arms to the people of North Carolina – we have to pull together to stem the tide," Cooper said.

Rather than reimposing restrictions that have been eased in recent months, he decided to close loopholes in the statewide mask mandate that he put in place over the summer.

Now, masks must be worn indoors whenever someone not in the same household is present and outdoors whenever physical distancing isn't possible. The tighter restrictions include requiring masks in private schools and in gyms, even when people are working out, as well as in airports and train and bus stations.

Large businesses must have someone checking that customers are wearing masks and that capacity limits are followed, and law enforcement can cite individuals or businesses for not complying.

"We need counties to work with us to enforce safety rules," Cooper said. "We know we have the key to stemming the tide – that is enforcing the safeguards that are already in place."

Guilford County is one of the new counties in the red zone, and Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan said her city is ratcheting up enforcement on the mask mandate at local businesses, threatening to shut them down for up to three days for repeated violations. The city also is fining businesses $100 for each person inside over the state's capacity limits, she said.

"We don’t have that problem here right now," Penny Rich, chairwoman of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, said of noncompliance. "So, we're not feeling like we’re in the same place as Greensboro or some of the other counties that are red."

Along with Wake and Durham counties, Orange County is in the yellow zone, which is the lowest level in the state's county alert system.

Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin said city officials plan to discuss how to handle Cooper's new executive order.

"We have been proactively monitoring businesses for the past few weeks with our fire marshals and special events staff specifically working with bars and restaurants," Baldwin said. "Our goal has been voluntary compliance. This order is more focused on retail, so we will look at language and enforcement."

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said the city attorney has been working to get businesses in his city to comply with the mask mandate, although police have gotten involved for an "egregious" violation.

"I do think that what the governor is doing is good and important and that we will certainly be enforcing the mask mandate in Durham. It’s essential," Schewel said. "Fortunately, in Durham, we have a very high rate of compliance."

The latest executive order that details the restrictions will be in place through Dec. 11.

"The rules need to be enforced," Cooper said. "We don't want to go backward [and close businesses again], but we will if necessary."

WRAL reporters Keely Arthur and Sarah Krueger contributed to this report.

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