Resisting pressure as other Southern chief executives begin allowing businesses to reopen, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said Thursday that the state’s stay-at-home order from COVID-19 will remain in place for at least another two weeks.
The Democratic governor, who also unveiled a three-phase plan for reopening based on expanded tracing and testing and declining case growth, said current data just doesn’t support loosening restrictions that first started in mid-March.
Cooper’s order extension and guidance comes as state health officials reported nearly 400 additional positive cases on Thursday morning compared to the day before, marking one of the largest day-over-day increases so far. The state’s overall case total is now more than 7,600. There have been more than 250 COVID-19 deaths in North Carolina and the number of current hospitalizations approached 500.
North Carolina’s stay-at-home order, which allowed only essential business to open and limited movement by the public, was set to expire next Tuesday. Now it will be extended to May 8, as will other restrictions barring dine-in services for restaurants and closing gyms, hair salons and gyms. A prohibition on gatherings of more than 10 people also remains intact.
“It’s clear that we are flattening the curve, but our state is not ready to lift restrictions yet,” Cooper said in a media briefing, adding that “I will not risk the health of our people or our hospitals, and easing these restrictions now would do that.”
Republican governors in Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia last week announced they would ease their state’s restrictions so that some nonessential businesses could open. Close to 1,000 people seeking to end North Carolina’s order marched around Cooper’s Executive Mansion on Tuesday.
Nationally, Americans remain overwhelmingly in favor of stay-at-home orders, according to a survey from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Under Cooper’s plan, more retailers and parks could reopen after May 8. People would also be allowed to leave their homes for more reasons if the state meets 14-day rolling-average goals on some key case and hospitalization rates and other thresholds.
At least two to three weeks later, the stay-at-home order could be lifted and restaurants, bars and churches reopened at reduced capacity if the goals continue to be met, Cooper said.
Activities could become more normal with further improvements, perhaps in at least an additional four to six weeks, according to the governor. But restrictions on nursing homes and other corporate living areas would remain. And broader restrictions could return if cases surge again.
In a news release, Republican Senate leader Phil Berger said the proposal offers very little for restaurants until at least June 1 and could lead to permanent closures.
“This decision will needlessly crush businesses and destroy livelihoods in places that don’t even have a single case of coronavirus,” said Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, Cooper’s GOP fall gubernatorial opponent. He wants counties without the virus prevalent to be allowed to reopen.
But U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said Cooper’s plan is in line with guidance from President Donald Trump’s virus taskforce: “We need to base decisions on the data from our state and counties, on public safety, and on the best long-term economic interests of our state.”
Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s health and human services secretary, laid out data showing that while the percentage of patient visits to emergency rooms for COVID-19-like illness is declining, the number of new COVID-19 cases is not.
The analysis also envisions daily virus testing doubling to at least 5,000 and contact tracing workers doubled to 500. More gowns and high-quality masks are needed, too, Cohen said.
The state’s K-12 schools are currently closed through May 15. Cooper said he and other education officials would announce a decision on the school year Friday.
Also Thursday, state legislators and education leaders formally agreed to seek about $860 million in combined emergency funding from the full General Assembly for K-12 schools and for health care needs. The legislature convenes next week.
The State Board of Education is seeking $380 million in state funds, including money for $5-per-hour raises to school cafeteria workers and bus drivers distributing meals to low-income students. Another $150 million would help expand remote learning and $70 million would help teach early-grade children at risk of failure in “jump-start programs” before school begins this fall.
The health care proposal, which would distribute $480 million from a federal coronavirus relief law, would set aside $75 million to purchase additional personal protective equipment, expand virus tests and hire contract tracing workers. Another $75 million would go to buttress rural hospitals.
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