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By Anne Blythe

North Carolina fitness centers and gyms have largely been closed for the past six months because the state’s public health team has had concerns that COVID-19 can spread more rapidly while people breathe heavily during physical exertion.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Tuesday that he would ease statewide social distancing restrictions so gyms, bowling alleys, museums, aquariums, dance and yoga studios can open at a limited capacity with social distancing measures in place.

Bars, nightclubs, indoor entertainment venues, movie theaters and amusement parks will remain closed, according to the order. Large outdoor venues such as sports stadiums cannot have crowds that exceed 50 people.

On Monday, Cooper extended the statewide alcohol curfew, which requires restaurants to stop serving beer, wine and liquor at 11 p.m. so they do not turn into makeshift bars. It now expires on Oct. 2.

Cooper likened the modest step forward in his Safer at Home Phase 2.5 order as another slight twist in his “dimmer switch approach.”

“Moving to Phase 2.5 means we can do a few more things while still fighting the virus as vigorously as ever,” Cooper said. “In fact, a new phase is exactly when we need to take this virus even more seriously. Wear a face mask. Wash your hands. Make sure you’re waiting more than six feet apart. These things have never been more important.”

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, presented charts and graphs showing a stabilizing of the metrics and trends driving the governor’s decision making, as well as improvement in one area.

The number of people showing up at emergency departments with COVID-19 symptoms has dropped steadily over the past three weeks.

“The past six months have been difficult and the summer was no exception,” Cohen said. “Throughout June and in the beginning of July, we experienced our highest levels of community transmission, cases and then hospitalizations. But thanks to the hard work of North Carolinians, especially with wearing face coverings, we saw those trends stabilize and begin to move downward.”

By early September, the number of people who were coming to emergency departments reporting COVID-like symptoms had been decreasing for about six weeks, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen. According to Cohen, this is an early indicator of the amount of COVID-19 spreading in the community.

Even though testing sites are available and the turn-around time for lab results is lower again, North Carolinians are not getting tested for COVID-19 as much as the public health team would like to see.

Last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave emergency use authorization to Abbott Laboratories for a 15-minute coronavirus test that detects antigens unique to the virus that causes COVID-19. Cohen was asked Tuesday whether North Carolina would have access to the tests.

“Our understanding is actually the federal government actually has bought up the supply for the next several months,” Cohen said. “But they are sharing with us that they are going to be allocating those to the states. We’re trying to still get more information on how is that allocation going to work, how many’s coming and how would we distribute that here.”

Both Cohen and Cooper have said they want to get more rapid tests online to go along with the costly and supply-heavy lab testing.

“We want to increase testing, but if we can get faster, accurate results, that is a good thing,” Cohen said.

Cohen and her team would like to see the percentage of lab tests coming back positive dip down to at least 5 percent from nearly 7 percent.

She would like the universities to knuckle down on students to dial back the numerous clusters of five or more related cases that have cropped up on campuses and in fraternity and sorority houses.

Nonetheless, now that North Carolina has several weeks of data from the reopening of colleges and in-person classes in some K-12 school districts, the public health team has cautious optimism about where the state stands.

“Your hard work is having an impact,” Cohen said. “We must work together to continue this progress.”

A woman throws a bowling ball down the lane during an event at the Bonnyman Bowling Center aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C. Photo credit: Photo By: Lance Cpl. Devin Nichols/ USMC

Nursing home visits

The Safer at Home Phase 2.5 also eases the way for skilled nursing homes to allow their residents to have visitors outside with strict social distancing measures in place.

“We know that this separation has been so hard for families,” Cooper said. “We also know that it is important to protect nursing home residents and staff from the virus.”

Cohen said other long-term facilities had been having outdoor visitations, but the skilled nursing homes were the last on the list.

“Those are folks who are our most medically frail,” Cohen said. “We’ve been working very, very hard to protect them at this most challenging time. We know this virus can attack those who are medically frail and be very severe. So we’ve been trying to find this balance of protection but also recognizing this visitation is part of leading a full and complete life.”

Gym owners, bowling alley proprietors long wait

The modest step forward, outlined in the Safer at Home Phase 2.5 order, comes as some frustrated gym owners found a way around the statewide closures by using an exemption intended for fitness facilities that cater to people exercising as part of a medical treatment plan.

On June 5, the state Department of Health and Human Services posted a memo to clarify who could use indoor fitness facilities for medical purposes, as allowed under Cooper’s Safer at Home Phase 2 order.

Gyms and fitness facilities could open their doors “to serve any people prescribed or directed to use those facilities by a medical or health care professional.”

Those facilities could not allow more than 10 people in a room at any one time, per the old order. The exerciser was supposed to have a note from a health care provider but it’s not clear whether all gyms were requiring them.

Some large chains, such as Planet Fitness, announced earlier this week to members that they would open on Tuesday, well before the governor’s order was signed.

The company released a statement after the governor’s media briefing outlining details of what can and cannot go on for the three weeks. The Safer at Home Phase 2.5 order takes effect on Friday.

“We look forward to safely and responsibly getting North Carolinians moving again,” McCall Gosselin, senior vice president of communications and corporate social responsibility at Planet Fitness, said in an email statement. “At Planet Fitness, the safety of our members and team members is our top priority. We are taking a number of steps to protect their health and well-being, which include enhanced cleanliness and sanitization policies and procedures, physical distancing measures in our large and spacious clubs, mask mandates, touch-less check-in and more.”

Gosselin said the protocols have been used across the country to reopen more than 1,500 Planet Fitness sites. The company reports more than 45 million check-ins since May 1 and has no evidence of COVID-19 being contracted inside the facilities.

“Now more than ever, it’s important to stay active, in order to stay healthy,” Gosselin continued. “This is especially important for the many Planet Fitness members in North Carolina who live in underserved areas that do not provide other safe, reliable and affordable options for physical fitness.”

Face covering sign on door of CrossFit Chapel Hill. Photo credit: Anne Blythe

Museums and aquariums can open

The new order, which extends through Sept. 22, allows gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, as well as dance and yoga studios to open at 30 percent capacity but cannot go over the new indoor crowd limit of 25 people in one place at one time, as long as other social distancing measures are employed.

Museums and aquariums may open at 50 percent capacity. Playgrounds may fully reopen.

“We know that some businesses are still closed and that people are hurting,” Cooper said, when asked about long closures for bars and other indoor entertainment venues. “The more we can do to slow the spread of this virus, the faster we can turn this dimmer switch on and let everything open. The problem is if people don’t do things to slow the spread like wearing a mask and social distancing, we’re going to continue to have to be careful.”

Bar owners sued Cooper earlier this year, and on Tuesday, the state Supreme Court heard arguments in a case brought by the N.C. Bowling Proprietors Association against the governor.

NC lawmakers return

North Carolina lawmakers are set to reconvene on Wednesday for what has been billed as a brief session.

Last week, Cooper put forward his proposed spending plan. House and Senate Republicans revealed a plan they put together that would include some of what the governor proposed and some items such as increasing Opportunity Scholarships, or vouchers, could be controversial.

The lawmakers’ plan, which has yet to be put to a public vote, was posted to the Medium site Senator Berger Press Shop on Tuesday.

Cooper said Tuesday afternoon he had not seen the 54-page plan yet but will review it carefully.

“We want to keep the health and safety of North Carolinians as the first priority,” Cooper said. “Hopefully we can come up with a package that will be positive for North Carolina.”

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Tuesday afternoon:

  • 2,702 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 169,424 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 946 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.
  • 145,884 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.
  • To date, 2,295,698 tests have been completed. As of July 7, all labs in the state are required to report both their positive and negative test results to the lab, so that figure includes all of the COVID-19 tests performed in the state.
  • People ages 25-49 make up the largest group of cases (42 percent). While 13 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 80 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
  • 352 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,311 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 912 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.

Anne Blythe

Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.