Gov. Roy Cooper says the state is "holding steady" in the fight against the coronavirus and can move into Phase 3 of its reopening plan on Friday, clearing the way for limited business at bars, movie theaters and entertainment venues.
"I believe that North Carolina can do this safely," Cooper said. "But so I'm clear, every gathering carries the risk of spreading this disease. Being safe means being smart and making sure others around you are doing the same. If you're still at high risk, you're still safer at home. If you're going out, do what works. Wear a mask, keep social distancing, wash your hands often and don't patronize or go to places where people aren't doing that."
Phase 3 will last until at least Oct. 23.
The move allows bars that don't serve food — which have been closed since mid-March — to reopen outdoor areas at 30% capacity or 100 people, whichever is less. Movie theaters and conference centers also have the 30% capacity or 100 people limit, but can open indoor areas. Smaller outdoor venues can also open at 30% or 100 people, and large venues with a 10,000-plus person capacity can open at 7% occupancy.
Additionally, outdoor amusement parks can reopen at 30% capacity, but the mass gathering limit in the state remains capped at 25 people inside and 50 outside.
Cooper moved the state into what he called "Phase 2.5" of 3 on Sept. 1, allowing things like playgrounds, museums and gyms to reopen with certain safety and capacity restrictions in place. He notably kept bars closed.
The eased restrictions on big venues would apply to spaces like Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium. So far, major sports events like Panthers games and college football matches have been held without fans in the stands.
North Carolina started its first round of restrictions March 17, when Cooper ordered restaurants to halt dine-in services and bars to close. Since then, restaurants and other "close contact" businesses had been allowed to reopen with restrictions, but bars that didn't serve food remained closed. Movie theaters also had not been cleared to reopen.
Other restrictions -- like a stay-at-home order and complete shuttering of public schools -- have also since been lifted. A curfew on alcohol sales at restaurants after 11 p.m. remains in place as of Wednesday, as does a statewide mask mandate.
The North Carolina Bar and Tavern Association was not exactly thrilled with Cooper's announcement, with the group's president, Zack Medford, calling it "a slap in the face." The group has its own suggested guidance and is asking for bars to be able to open at 50% capacity.
"The governor is allowing private bars to open at 30 percent capacity outside with absolutely no inside service," the association said in a statement. "Most municipalities don’t issue occupancy certificates for outdoors, so under the rules, those bars will be limited to seven customers per 1,000 square feet. That’s seven. It is virtually impossible to pay for staff and overhead with fewer than 20 customers."
State Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said Wednesday that North Carolina has seen a leveling in the trajectory of people with COVID-19 symptoms, hospitalizations and the percentage of positive coronavirus tests. At the same time, testing capacity has gone up, contact tracing has increased and more personal protective equipment has become available for the state's health care workers.
North Carolina has been slower to ease restrictions than many other Southern states.
"Our progress is fragile," Cohen said. "We cannot take anything for granted. Across the country, cases are beginning to increase again, particularly in the Midwest and the South. ... We're going to need to double down on our work to slow the spread of the virus to keep on the right track."
As of Wednesday morning, at least 210,632 coronavirus infections had been confirmed by laboratory testing in North Carolina. At least 3,532 people in the state have died from COVID-19 complications, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
Nine hundred fifty-six people were hospitalized for COVID-19 in the state Wednesday morning. Of those, just over 200 were in what the state calls the Metrolina health care region that includes Charlotte. There have been more confirmed cases of the virus in the Charlotte region than any other region of the Carolinas, but it's also the most populous metro area. As of Tuesday night, at least 28,756 cases had been diagnosed by testing in Mecklenburg County alone and 357 had died from COIVD-19 complications, according to the health department.
As of Monday, which is the most recent day for which recovery estimates are available, state health officials said it was likely that about 184,442 people had recovered from COVID-19, which equates to about 89% of confirmed infections at the time.
People 65 and older have accounted for 81% of the deaths attributed to COVID-19 in North Carolina, despite representing only 13% of confirmed coronavirus infections, according to state data. At least 1,791 of the North Carolinians who have died from COVID-19 complications lived in nursing homes or residential care facilities.