North Carolina will move “cautiously forward” at 5 p.m. Friday into Phase 3 of its reopening, Governor Roy Cooper announced at a coronavirus briefing this afternoon in which he outlined the easing of restrictions for large and small outdoor venues, indoor movie theaters, and outdoor bars and amusement parks.

Under this first stage of Phase 3, which will expire at 5 p.m. on Oct. 23, indoor mass gatherings will remain limited to 25 people, and outdoor mass gatherings not associated with a venue will continue to be capped at 50 people.

The State’s “mask mandate,” which requires everyone age 5 and older to wear a facial covering under circumstances that pose a risk of COVID-19, also will continue. The Governor further urged elderly or otherwise at-risk individuals to stay “safer at home.”

Characterizing the state’s coronavirus metrics, such as the number of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations reported daily, as “mostly stable, but fragile,” Governor Cooper said, “We’re cautiously encouraged about where we are in this pandemic.”

Most of the metrics, said Dr. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services, are “level, but still high.”

The Governor also remarked upon “warning signs that the disease could spike again here and across the country,” especially during the colder months, and said he was taking “the next steps meticulously and responsibly,” in accordance with his “dimmer switch approach.”

The Governor started by reiterating the announcement he made last week—in order to give colleges and universities and professional sports teams time to prepare—that large outdoor venues with seating to accommodate more than 10,000 spectators may open Friday at 7 percent occupancy.

Under the new executive order, small outdoor venues, such as arenas or amphitheaters, he said, may open at 30 percent outdoor capacity or for up to 100 guests, whichever number is less; and movie theaters and conference centers may open indoors at 30 percent capacity or for up to 100 seated guests, whichever number is less.

The Governor’s order further authorizes outdoor amusement parks to open at 30 percent capacity, but keeps indoor amusement centers closed. (The executive order is not yet available online for The Beacon to review.)

Bars that serve patrons outdoors may open at 30 percent of their outdoor capacity or for up to 100 guests, whichever is less, and must observe the alcohol-sale-for-in-person-consumption curfew of 11 p.m., which has been extended.  

A question by a reporter of Dr. Cohen about how a bar that does not currently have an outdoor capacity should limit the number of guests it serves at one time clarified that they should limit capacity to seven people per 1,000 square feet of space.

Dr. Cohen did not explain exactly how her department came up with the seven people-per-1,000-square-feet calculation, which is in the restrictions—called “complicated” by the reporter—that the State imposes on bars in the new executive order.

Indeed, all of the businesses that are opening at limited capacity are required to adhere to State safety protocols to ensure that social distancing and other public-health precautions are observed.

Outdoor events and activities are considered safer than indoor events and activities, both the Governor and the Secretary said, but not if participants cluster together, mingle closely with people who are not in their own household or “bubble,” or otherwise violate basic COVID-19 safety rules.

“We need to double-down on our work to slow the spread of this virus to keep on the right track,” said Dr. Cohen, who noted that COVID-19 cases nationwide have increased in the Midwest and the South and in the Northeast and Sandhills areas of North Carolina.

The Secretary recommended that every person do three things to thwart COVID-19:

  1. Observe the “three Ws”
  2. Download the “slow covid” exposure detection app (See The Beacon, 9/29/20 and https://covid19.ncdhhs.gov/slowcovidnc)
  3. Get a flu shot

“Being safe means being smart and making sure others around you are doing the same,” said Governor Cooper, who added that one of the State’s challenges is “just getting every person to do his or her part.”

If every person were to take “personal responsibility” and be “careful and cautious,” he said, “we could move faster to ease restrictions and stop the spread [of COVID-19].”

Asked by a reporter about the possible expiration of the statewide mask mandate, the Governor said it will remain “important until we have a vaccine or a cure to protect the population.”    

Addressing results of contact tracing, Dr. Cohen said that the “risk of viral spread” is greatest:

  1. Among extended family members and close friends who “let down their guard” when they are together [Note: This has certainly been the case in Dare County];
  2. In congregate living settings where people are “living in close quarters”; and
  3. In large gatherings, such as in restaurants, religious settings, and college dormitories.

Today’s NCDHHS dashboard records 210,632 positive cases of COVID-19, among 3,029,942 completed tests; 956 hospitalizations; and 3,532 deaths. The positivity rate is hovering around 6 percent, according to Dr. Cohen.

[UPDATE: At 5 p.m. today, the Dare County Dept. of Health and Human Services reported four new COVID-19 cases, all of them Dare County residents. They are a man and a woman, between ages 50 and 64; a woman between ages 25 and 49; and a girl age 17 or younger. The four are in home isolation.]

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 9/30/20

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