By North Carolina Health News staff
Restaurants, salons, barbershops may open soon
North Carolinians will be able to get haircuts at a barbershop or salon after Friday and spend time inside restaurants and at swimming pools that have been closed for nearly two months due to COVID-19.
Gov. Roy Cooper announced Wednesday that he will move the state into phase two of his COVID-19 reopening plan late Friday afternoon. However, bars, gyms, theaters, museums, outdoor playgrounds and a few other venues that draw larger crowds will remain closed.
The statewide stay-at-home order that has restricted movement expires at 5 p.m. Friday. The governor has named the five weeks that will follow a “safer-at-home” phase two in an executive order that will go into effect Friday afternoon and expire on June 26.
“Phase two is another careful step forward,” Cooper said at a late-afternoon media briefing.
Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, presented graphs and charts during the briefing that showed three of the trends her team is monitoring — hospitalizations, emergency room visits with COVID-19 symptoms and percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive — either level or decreasing.
The number of COVID-19 lab-confirmed cases continues to rise with the highest day-over-day increase recorded within the past week. The state has ramped up testing, conducting an average of 5,000 to 7,000 tests per day, with more than 10,000 tests completed on Wednesday. What Cohen and her team weigh that against is the number of overall tests. The percentage of lab-confirmed cases has hovered between 6 and 7 percent.
Nonetheless, the rising case count concerned Cohen enough to encourage the governor to take a more modest step for the coming phase than initially planned.
“We need to be incredibly vigilant to slow the spread of the virus,” Cohen said.
Cooper said local governments can enact stricter rules than those in his executive order if that’s in their best interest and in the best interest of the health of their communities.
Crowds will be limited to no more than 10 people indoors, with outdoor levels a little higher at no more than 25 people.
Child care facilities, day camps and sleepover camps will be opened, but with strict cleaning requirements.
“This next phase can help us boost our economy,” Cooper said. “That’s important. We can only help our economy when people have confidence in their own safety, which is why it’s important to ease restrictions carefully and use data like Dr. Cohen was talking about when deciding when to do it.
“I know this virus has upended life for many North Carolinians, especially those who’ve lost their incomes,” Cooper added.
More than 850,000 people have filed claims for unemployment benefits, and there have been complaints from across the state about filers having difficulty not only getting their claims into the system but also getting answers to questions about when the help will arrive.
“I’ve directed the division of employment security to improve the efficiency and customer service,” Cooper said.
Cooper urged people in the coming phase to be courteous of others, maintain six feet of distance, continue to wash hands frequently, and wear a face covering.
“Remember, the face covering is more about protecting other people from your germs in case you have the virus and just don’t know it yet,” Cooper said. “A face covering signifies strength and compassion for others. Wearing one means that you actually care about other people’s health.” — Anne Blythe
Looking for a diverse contact tracing workforce
Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, has stressed the need to bring on workers in this next phase to help track down people who might have come into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
Regular testing will be important to detect any hotspots of virus in order to immediately slow the spread of COVID-19 and prevent it moving further through the community.
The Carolina Community Tracing Collaborative, a new organization that DHHS is partnering with, has hired 152 new tracers to assist the 250 tracers already working in the state’s 85 county-based public health departments.
“We’re also being very intentional that the tracers who are hired reflect the diversity of the communities they serve,” Cohen said. “These staff will help support our very strong local health departments who are experts at contact tracing.”
The virus has hit communities of color harder in North Carolina, highlighting long-existing health disparities across the state.
Setting up testing sites that are easily accessible and trusted in those communities has been a priority for Cohen. As of Wednesday, there were 300 testing sites set up across the state, but Cohen said she hopes to see even more. — Anne Blythe
Want to eat out? Here’s what you’ll experience
Though many restaurants across the state have been offering curbside pick-up and delivery service throughout the pandemic, Gov. Roy Cooper and his team worked closely with the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association so they could bring diners inside.
In order to do so, though, restaurants will have to follow some requirements and are urged to go along with guidance that is encouraged but not codified in the governor’s executive order.
Restaurants that open for indoor dining will be required to:
- Keep occupancy levels at 50 percent or 12 people per 1,000 square feet, and that number includes employees;
- Space tables six feet apart and do the same for counter and bar seating;
- Post signs about the 3 Ws: wear a face covering, wait six feet apart and wash hands frequently; and
- Put markings on the floor near cash registers or in waiting areas so guests know to keep six-feet apart.
Though restaurants will not be required to, they are encouraged to:
- Seat no more than 10 people at a table unless larger crowds are from the same household or family;
- Not use shared tables among multiple parties unless they can be spaced six-feet apart;
- Keep waiting lines on the outside and have those waiting spaced six-feet apart;
- Provide hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol at entrances;
- Train employees how to wear and safely remove and wash face coverings;
- Install physical barriers at cash registers or food pickup areas if it is difficult for customers to keep a distance of six feet from employees;
- Stagger seating times;
- Advise staff to stay six feet away from customers when possible, including servers;
- Provide such condiments as mustard, ketchup, salt, pepper and more in single-use packets; and
- Create an area at bars where customers can order while standing six-feet apart from the employee and other customers.
Sen. Phil Berger, the Eden Republican who often spars over policy differences with Cooper, issued a statement before the media briefing Wednesday afternoon.
Partisan divides have emerged again over the past week, with Republicans from the state senate pushing back against the stay-at-home order over restrictions against houses of worship, salons and barbershops, as well as restaurants.
“When I asked Gov. Cooper to reopen restaurants and personal care services last week, the Governor said it wasn’t safe to do so. But according to data for yesterday, when the Governor began notifying people of his decision, North Carolina had more cases, more hospitalizations, and fewer tests performed than when I issued my call last week.
“It seems strange that it was unsafe to reopen last week, but it’s safe to reopen now with worse numbers. This gets back to the central question of what strategy is driving the Governor’s actions. What goal does he think is achievable?”
Cooper was not asked about Berger’s comments, but said during the news conference that it was important for restaurants to kick off this next phase so customers would feel safe.
“There is a strong desire by the restaurants that they want to do this right because they know that safety precautions will be good for business,” Cooper said. — Anne Blythe
Where’s the governor going to dine?
Gov. Roy Cooper was asked which restaurant he would visit first in the next phase.
Cooper said he has been spending many hours at the state’s Emergency Operations Center and the Executive Mansion, and, like many people, working long hours with little time to cook.
“Hadn’t decided what restaurant we’ll go to,” Cooper said. “I’ve eaten a lot of pizza, so probably wouldn’t be a pizza joint. But that’s still to be decided.” — Anne Blythe
Coronavirus by the numbers
According to NCDHHS data, as of Wednesday morning:
- 702 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
- 20,122 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 554 are in the hospital. The hospitalization figure is a snapshot of people hospitalized with COVID-19 infections on a given day and does not represent all of the North Carolinians who may have been in the hospital throughout the course of the epidemic.
- 11,627 people who had COVID-19 are presumed to have recovered. This weekly estimate does not denote how many of the diagnosed cases in the state are still infectious.
- More than 277,000 tests have been completed thus far, though not all labs report their negative results to the state, so the actual number of completed COVID-19 tests is likely higher.
- Most of the cases (43 percent) were in people ages 25-49. While 20 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 85 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
- 135 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
- There are 3,385 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 798 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.
Churches can skip phase two, but Cooper asks them not to
After a group of churches received a favorable ruling from James C. Dever III, a federal judge in the Eastern District of North Carolina last weekend, worship services will be exempt from new phase two rules limiting indoor gatherings to 25 people or fewer.
“We are still encouraging social distancing, and we have put forth a list of recommendations for people who are in meetings and in worship services, which we think are important,” Gov. Roy Cooper told reporters at a briefing Wednesday evening where he announced lifting some restrictions on activities in the state.
“I hope that congregations and leaders throughout North Carolina will think twice about what they’re doing,” Cooper said. “Most all of the major denominations have been doing online services, there are a number of churches that have been doing outside services and drive-in services.
“You hear about the ones that aren’t, but the vast, vast majority of these congregations across North Carolina are doing the right things to protect their members.”
In guidance posted to Cooper’s website Wednesday afternoon, the Department of Health and Human Services recommended (among other things) that places of worship:
- put six feet of space between groups who live in the same household;
- post signs to remind people of social distancing, and place floor markers;
- provide options for online services;
- limit the use of common objects that could be touched by many, such as prayer books, hymnals, collection plates, etc.; and
- encourage the use of face coverings.
This week, the Centers for Disease Control and prevention released a case study of a church in Arkansas that was the hub for transmitting COVID-19 to more than 90 people.
A rural church had several in-person meetings March 6-11, including a children’s service, a Bible study and a worship service. The pastor, 57, developed symptoms on March 11, his wife, 56, developed symptoms the day before. According to the CDC, the couple were likely infected at one of several events that took place between March 6-8 and the pastor likely exposed others during the Bible study on March 11.
In all, 35 of 92 people who attended these events acquired COVID-19, and three people died. Church members who became infected had contact with an additional 26 people who eventually tested positive, and of those, one person died.
Cooper’s guidance also suggested that any choir members remain six feet apart.
A different case study released last week by the CDC detailed how a choir practice in Washington state became a “super-spreader event.”
“The act of singing, itself, might have contributed to transmission through emission of aerosols, which is affected by loudness of vocalization,” the study’s authors noted. — Rose Hoban
Mental health moment
These little ones sure know how to entertain themselves and the rest of us. Their laughter is contagious.