North Carolina will remain in Phase 3 of coronavirus restrictions for at least three more weeks, and limitations on indoor gatherings will be lowered to 10 people from 25 as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the state, Gov. Roy Cooper said Tuesday.
Other Phase 3 restrictions – such as restaurants remaining at 50% capacity and limiting large stadium gatherings to 7% of capacity – will remain in place.
North Carolina’s Phase 3 restrictions were scheduled to expire Friday. This is the second time the phase has been extended. The latest executive order will expire Dec. 4.
The lowering of indoor gatherings is aimed at large family and friend gatherings, Cooper said, as the holiday season and cooler weather approaches.
“We are targeting and wanting people to know that social, community gatherings and family gatherings, that this is where we have seen the clusters, particularly in October,” Cooper said. “This is where we have seen a large part of the outbreaks.
“Part of this lowering is to send a signal to those groups that this is a problem. People tend to let their guard down when they are with people they know or who are family. But as we’ve said time and time again, that doesn’t mean they don’t have COVID-19 and aren't showing symptoms.”
Cooper originally moved North Carolina into Phase 3 on Oct. 2, allowing limited reopenings of bars that don't serve food, movie theaters and conference centers. The move also cleared the way for fans at more sporting events, with smaller outdoor venues allowed to operate at 30% or 100 people, and large venues with a 10,000-plus person capacity opening at 7% occupancy.
But in recent weeks, cases of the coronavirus have steadily risen, with at least 2,000 cases identified on all but two of the last 15 days.
The test positivity rate has risen incrementally, from consistent 5-6% in September, to 6-7% in the last six weeks. On data released Tuesday, the most recent percentage of positive tests returned Sunday was 7.5%.
Additionally, hospitalizations for COVID-19 have been at their highest levels since July, with more than 1,000 people hospitalized since Oct. 6.
“We are on shaky ground as we head into Thanksgiving,” state Health Secretary Mandy Cohen said. “The safest thing we can do for our loved ones is to limit travel and to avoid getting together in person, especially indoors.”
Guidance for Thanksgiving released by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services says anyone traveling to visit family should consider getting a COVID-19 screening 3-4 days before attending family gatherings.
Even if the test is negative, people who do not live in the same household should wear masks and practice social distancing, Cohen said.
"We're entering, I think, a very dangerous and potentially uncertain time here in the holidays," Cooper said. "As it get cooler, the virus wants to be more active indoors. so we're ratcheting up the prevention efforts out there to let people know this is very serious."
Both Cohen and Cooper, though, were also optimistic about the possibility of a COVID-19 vaccine being available soon, as Pfizer announced Monday that its vaccine was 90% effective in clinical trials. Additionally, a monoclonal antibody drug— the same treatment President Trump received when he had the coronavirus — has been approved by the FDA.
"This pandemic will end," Cooper said. "A vaccine is in the final stages of development and the FDA has authorized a promising new treatment. Hope is on the horizon. This pandemic will not last forever.
"As frustrating and painful as it is, we must keep fighting a little while longer. We don't want to let the last eight months of sacrifices go to waste by dropping our guard or ignoring safety measures during family gatherings. We've come too far to lose our focus now."
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