6/24/20: GOVERNOR EXTENDS PHASE TWO BY THREE WEEKS, IMPOSES STATEWIDE FACE-COVERING MANDATE. Reporters Press Him About ‘Fault’ for Case Increase, Not Acting Sooner.

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N.C. Governor Roy Cooper announced today that he is extending Phase Two of the state’s reopening for three weeks—until July 17—and imposing a statewide face-covering requirement that in his description sounded very much like Dare County’s new face-covering mandate, which took effect last Sunday.

Phase Two was set to expire at 5 p.m. Friday, five weeks after it started. Under this “Safer-at-Home” phase, many close-contact businesses, such as restaurants and hair salons, have been permitted to reopen, but at reduced customer capacity and with the observance by employees and customers of infection-control measures.

Gyms, fitness centers, museums, bars, clubs, and other public places that have been shuttered will remain closed, the Governor said in announcing the extension.

In order not to “go backward” in the state’s economic recovery, North Carolina’s chief executive said he was “adding [the] new requirement” of face coverings, which must be worn by anyone age 11 and older in public places, both indoors and outdoors, whenever six-foot social distancing is not possible.

Like Dare County’s face-covering order, the state’s face-covering order provides for exceptions, such as while actively eating or drinking, while giving a speech, or while strenuously exercising.

[The Beacon will report on the  precise language of the Governor’s new executive order after we have had a chance to study it. It was posted online while we were writing this article: https://files.nc.gov/governor/documents/files/EO147-Phase-2-Extension.pdf.]

Unlike Dare County’s mandate, however, the state’s requirement will be legally enforceable only against businesses, not individuals, according to a response by the Governor to a reporter’s question. Dare County provides in its emergency mandate for criminally charging and prosecuting individuals.

Law-enforcement officers may charge a business owner with violating the new state requirement if the owner does not ensure that employees and customers wear face coverings. Recalcitrant customers may be dealt with through a trespassing charge.

North Carolina’s continuously rising COVID-19 metrics—including today’s second-highest single-day totals for new cases and hospitalizations, upon which The Beacon reported earlier today—“are a strong warning, and we must pay attention,” the Governor said in explaining what he called a three-week “pause” in the state’s reopening.

He specifically cited as concerns an increase in community spread of the virus in North Carolina, as well as the daily rise of new COVID-19 cases and a dramatic increase (56 percent) in the number of hospitalizations statewide since Phase Two began.

“Hospital capacity can be overwhelmed in the blink of an eye,” he warned.

The Governor quoted congressional testimony yesterday by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease, who said that “North Carolina has seen an insidious increase in community spread,” and the virus here is only going to get “more difficult to contain.”

According to The Washington Post, Dr. Fauci stressed that the next few weeks are critical to tamping down what he called a “disturbing surge” of new cases in Southern and Western states, especially Arizona, California, Texas, and Florida.

The infectious-disease expert strongly urged people to avoid crowds and to wear masks.

(The Post reported today that Texas, Florida, and California each reported more than 5,000 new cases, and the United States set a new single-day record of 36,000 new infections, surpassing the previous single-day record of 34,203 set on April 25.)

“Overwhelming evidence shows that wearing face coverings can reduce the spread of COVID-19,” Governor Cooper said in one of many references to medical science and scientific evidence to encourage people to comply with the new mandate.

North Carolina “has been careful in lifting restrictions,” the Governor emphasized, and will continue to be careful. “Data and science,” he said, “will drive” all decision-making by state officials.

TOUGH QUESTIONS FROM REPORTERS

The Governor faced some tough questioning from reporters who asked him who is “to blame” and who is “at fault” for the current “insidious” COVID-19 situation in North Carolina.

One reporter asked him if he had any regrets over moving too quickly with the state’s reopening and/or with not ordering masks sooner.

The Governor sidestepped these questions, repeatedly responding that he had made decisions based on the data and scientific evidence available. He expressed no regrets or doubt.

In response to the question of blame, he said, “I think North Carolinians overall have done well. . . . We’ve avoided a surge.”

Pressed further about fault by a reporter who pointed out that New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut have announced a joint travel advisory that requires a 14-day quarantine for visitors from nine states, including North Carolina, the Governor said, “All of us need to be more careful” about hand hygiene, social distancing, and face coverings.

The only time that the Governor markedly veered from his message that everyone must wear a face covering, and everyone must observe infection-control protocol was when he said, in frustration, that “Some people are intentionally not wearing masks; some people are intentionally not social distancing.”

But North Carolina is fortunate, he said in follow-up, that “we never were at a really high point” in case numbers—the implication being that the Tar Heel State could look more like Florida if it had been.

Guest speaker Dennis Taylor, president of the North Carolina Nurses’ Assn., was more blunt in attributing much of the state’s case increase to young people, who are not wearing masks because they consider themselves low-risk for the virus.

“Everyone,” he said plaintively, “please heed our warning”: wear a mask and avoid gatherings of large crowds.

“COVID-19,” Mr. Taylor said, “is still here and very active.”

As usual, NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen gave a report on the state’s COVID-19 metrics, none of which is moving in an encouraging direction.

During the Q&A with reporters, Dr. Cohen said that the state is averaging 17,000 tests per day, and that 1,500 full-time staff members are doing contact tracing.

She also said that while the supply of personal protective equipment is “stable,” the NCDHHS is “starting to see supply shortages again” of reagents used in the testing.

Asked by a reporter why Phase Two was extended three weeks and not for a shorter time, Governor Cooper said, “Health experts need three weeks to analyze trends and data . . . to determine if we’re headed in the right direction.”

Next week the Governor will make an announcement about when public schools will open for the next school year.

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 6/24/20

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