North Carolina’s modified stay-at-home order, which includes a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew, will “be lifted,” and some COVID-19 restrictions on personal activities and businesses—notably, those affecting indoor bars and on-premises alcohol sales—will be “eased,” Friday at 5 p.m., but the state mask mandate and other “health and safety protocols” will remain in effect, Governor Roy Cooper announced at an afternoon briefing today.

In his new Executive Order 195, signed today, the Governor rescinds the modified-stay-at-home order, which is a Phase 3 order that was issued on Dec. 10 and twice extended, and allows indoor bars to reopen at 30 percent capacity, with a cap of 250 people, and on-premises alcohol sales to be extended two hours until 11 p.m.

Executive Order 195, which supersedes Executive Order 181 and its extensions, also increases the size of mass social gatherings from 10 people to 25 people for indoor gatherings and from 25 people to 50 people for outdoor gatherings, and loosens other restrictions currently in effect.

“Encouraged” by COVID-19 “metrics trends [that] have declined and stabilized,” as well as by the number of North Carolinians who have been vaccinated, Governor Cooper cautiously continued today the “dimmer switch” approach he has used in the state’s phased reopening since its early-pandemic shutdown.

More than 2.1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in North Carolina, according to the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services, and the Governor said today that more than half of all North Carolinians age 65 or older have been vaccinated.

Under EO 195, which expires at 5 p.m. on March 26, indoor businesses that have been operating at 30 percent capacity, such as movie theaters, certain indoor sports arenas, and indoor amusement parks, will continue to operate at this capacity, but there now will be a 250-person cap—rather than a 100-person cap—in effect, just as there will be with indoor bars.

Indoor sports arenas that seat up to 5,000 people will be permitted to operate at 15 percent capacity, subject to health and safety protocols. 

Outdoor businesses, such as sports venues and other high-capacity arenas that have been operating at 30 percent capacity, also will continue to do so, but they will not be subject to a cap in the number of people.

New COVID-19 cases statewide have been declining since they hit a peak on Jan. 10, according to Dr. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of the NCDHHS, who participated in the briefing, and, although “still high,” the numbers are back to those seen in November, before the holiday surge, she said.

Today’s NCDHHS dashboard numbers show 3,346 new COVID-19 cases, a positivity rate of 6.0 percent, 1,530 hospitalizations, and 11,074 deaths. Yesterday, 1,514 new cases and 1,563 hospitalizations were reported, and the positivity rate was 6.2 percent. One hundred nine more people died of the coronavirus during the past 24 hours.

Governor Cooper did not increase the occupancy limits of gyms, restaurants, retail stores, museums, personal care providers, and many other businesses and recreation spaces. They continue to be restricted to 50 percent capacity with specific safety protocols in place, including six-foot distancing among patrons, the installation of signage to ensure distancing, the use of disinfectants, and COVID-19 monitoring of staff.

Today’s actions, the Governor said, are “a show of trust and confidence [in North Carolinians,] but we must remain cautious.”

“We are slowing the spread” of COVID-19, said Dr. Cohen, but the new COVID-19 variants, all of which are in North Carolina, “are a wild card.”

When asked by a reporter to characterize the presence of the variants in the state, Dr. Cohen did not directly respond.

Both state officials stressed the public’s continued observance of the “three W’s” and their own decision-making according to what the science shows.

“We’re making progress,” Governor Cooper said, “. . . but we’re far from the end of this pandemic.”

For FAQs about the changes implemented under Executive Order 195, see https://www.nc.gov/covid-19/current-restrictions/faqs-eased-restrictions-under-executive-order-195.

In other news, Dr. Cohen responded to a reporter’s question about the use of the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine in North Carolina by saying she is anticipating receiving from 30,000 to 60,000 doses of the one-dose vaccine as early as next week. She did not say how the vaccine might be distributed statewide.

According to Dr. Cohen, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration should decide this week to give the Johnson & Johnson vaccine Emergency Use Authorization, and a vaccine advisory committee of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will meet this weekend to discuss it.

Supply in North Carolina of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines continues to be “incredibly limited,” she said, hampered most recently by severe winter weather.

FLAGS AT HALF-STAFF: Governor Cooper ordered all U.S. and North Carolina flags at state facilities to be flown at half-staff this week, until sunset Friday, in honor and remembrance of the more than 500,000 people in this country who have died of COVID-19.

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 2/24/21

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