RALEIGH, N.C. (WBTV) - Gov. Roy Cooper extended North Carolina’s Stay at Home order through May 8, announcing a gradual three-step phase. Cooper made the announcement during a press conference Thursday, as many residents waited to hear when businesses across the state might be reopening.
“Our state is not ready to lift restrictions yet,” Cooper said, “We need more time.”
Restrictions will be loosened under the Stay at Home order extension, but mass gatherings will still be limited to 10 people or less.
PHASE 1: Parks can reopen, outdoor exercise is encouraged, and face masks are still recommended when social distancing is not possible.
PHASE 2: “Here, the Stay at Home order will be lifted,” Cooper said, but the most vulnerable population will be encouraged to stay home. The mass gathering number of 10 will be increased and bars and restaurants can begin to reopen.
PHASE 3: Restrictions on the most vulnerable population will begin to loosen - and bars, restaurants and churches will begin to see increased capacities.
Cooper said the amount of time between the phases could be up to six weeks and until we reach certain benchmarks.
“I know the people in our state are eager to move forward," Cooper said. "And we will get there.”
People in surrounding counties, where cases may not be as high as Mecklenburg’s, have questioned why they needed to be included in the same Stay at Home order restrictions as North Carolina counties with higher case counts.
“This virus does not respect county lines. Many people may live in one county, work in another county, shop in another,” Cooper said.
Cooper announced Friday that public schools in the state will remain closed for the rest of the school year.
“Today, we’ve had to make another tough choice," Cooper said. "We’ve decided to continue with remote learning for the rest of the school year for our K through 12 public schools. Classrooms may be closed, but the learning is not over.”
The NC Department of Public Instruction will continue to work to make sure that students and families have the resources they need.
“All of us have been impacted by COVID-19 in some way," Cooper said. "Our children and their parents have had some of the most abrupt disruptions to their lives and routines. Teachers, who they see in real life, are now only seen on computer screens, friends are distant and ballfields are empty and the hum of hallways have turned to silence.”
Schools had been originally closed to students and staff for in-person instruction until at least May 15. Cooper said decisions about summer camps will be made going forward.
The governor said a vaccine is needed, as are new ways to test people, such as antibody tests to determine the community’s level of immunity. “We can rebuild the damage that this virus has done to our state," Cooper said.
“Last month, our state took strong actions to slow the spread of this pandemic,” Cooper said Thursday. “Now, we know what is needed to transition out of the restriction and what a new normal will look like.”
There has been recent criticism over Cooper’s Stay at Home order, with at least one group holding protests each Tuesday in Raleigh. This week, hundreds with ReOpenNC showed up to protest the governor’s order aimed at combating the spread of COVID-19.
Some are eagerly ready for businesses to reopen while others aren’t yet comfortable with a reopening.
“I know how frustrated and anxious people are about wanting to get back to school and wanting to get back to work,” Cooper said during a press conference hours after the protest, “and at the same time I know how anxious families are to make sure they are safe from this highly-contagious virus that can take lives.”
“We understand that we can’t stay at home forever and that this is not something that is sustainable long-term,” the governor said. “But what we have to do is to ease back into it to make sure that this virus does not spike - which it very easily could do - overwhelming our hospitals.”
The initial statewide Stay at Home order went into effect the last day of March and was set to last 30 days, until April 30, unless it was repealed, replaced, or rescinded by another executive order. With Cooper’s extension of the order, bars and restaurants will remain closed for dine-in, and close-contact businesses such as hair and nail salons will also remain closed, at least for the first phase.
Cooper pointed to other areas like New York and Italy where the hospitals were overwhelmed, and said health officials have modeling data to show what would happen if the restrictions were removed altogether.
Coronavirus-related deaths have surpassed this season’s flu deaths in North Carolina in less than a month. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of Health and Human Services, made the announcement Monday, when North Carolina was reporting 167 flu deaths and 179 COVID-19 deaths. The flu season began in September and North Carolina’s first coronavirus-related death wasn’t reported until March 21. The first confirmed COVID-19 case in the state was reported March 3.
“So in less than a month, we’ve already surpassed flu deaths for this year,” Cohen said. “COVID-19 is the leading cause of death in the United States."
NCDHHS has reported multiple outbreaks at state nursing homes and residential care facilities.
Cohen says the death rate would have been worse without the aggressive action that was taken to slow the spread. “We’ve done hard and important work," Cohen said.
North Carolina health officials reported a total of 7,608 cases of coronavirus across 93 counties Thursday, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Eleven additional deaths were also reported across the state, bringing the total to 253.
“We know this virus is taking a toll on our economy and on our workforce,” Cooper said, “and we can’t lose sight of how this virus is impacting our families in North Carolina.”
During a previous press conference, Cooper said in order to ease the current restrictions, North Carolina needed to make progress in three areas: testing, tracing and monitoring COVID-19 trends.
“This virus is going to be with us until there is a vaccine, which may be a year or more away," Cooper said. "As we ease restrictions, we are going to enter a new normal.”
“Our efforts to flatten the curve are working. And that means we have saved lives. The stay at home orders are working, but we know our current situation is not sustainable in the long run,” Cooper said.
Experts said it would be “dangerous" to lift restrictions all at once.
An accurate number of coronavirus recoveries has not been released in North Carolina. Cohen says scientists are working to determine a recovery number, but the problem is that some may define a recovery differently.
“How are we defining recovery? So how do we know – how do we document a recovery number?" Cohen said, reiterating a question that was asked to her. "We don’t all define recovery the same.”