shows a view down onto the field at Carter-Finley Stadium band members on the field, with sunset clouds beyond. In the foreground, are several people, one is holding binoculars
Recently, parents of NC State football players petitioned the governor to allow them to watch their children play collegiate sports. On Tuesday, Gov. Roy Cooper announced he would allow for North Carolina's stadiums to admit spectators at 7 percent of their total capacity. Photo credit: Melizabethi123/ Wikimedia Commons

By Anne Blythe

Outdoor stadiums and venues with a seating capacity of more than 10,000 will be able to allow some fans back in early October if North Carolina’s COVID-19 trends and metrics remain stable or improve over the next 10 days.

Gov. Roy Cooper made the announcement on Tuesday during a briefing with reporters so sports teams and any concert promoters hoping to bring audiences back would have time to print tickets and set up strict social distancing plans.

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The current Safer at Home Phase 2.5 executive order is set to expire Oct. 2.

Cooper already has given school districts the option of fully opening elementary schools, allowing classroom instruction for kindergarteners through fifth graders with face mask requirements and other measures to create barriers to the spread of COVID-19.

“I am pleased to report that North Carolina continues to remain stable in our key metrics,” Cooper said on a day that public health officials reported 1,161 new cases since Monday and a total of 3,286 deaths.

“We want the level of cases to be even lower, which is why safety measures like a mask requirement and social distancing are more important than ever. When we ease restrictions, that means our efforts are working, and to ease them more or to prevent us from having to go backward, we need to double down.”

There may be other areas in which restrictions are eased in a new order that takes effect after the Oct. 2 expiration of Safer at Home Phase 2.5, Cooper said, but he did not elaborate further on what those would be.

The announcement about large outdoor venues comes a little less than a week after the parents of Wolfpack football players at N.C. State University petitioned the governor to reconsider the outdoor crowd limitations so they could watch their college students play ACC sports.

The Cooper administration agreed to let the parents attend the game against Wake Forest last weekend at Carter-Finley Stadium as long as face masks were worn and families appropriately distanced themselves from others.

Carter-Finley has a 57,000-seat capacity. With 110 players on the team, families persuaded the public health team and university leaders that they could space out in the stands while watching the game in person. The new rule would allow for 7 percent of stadium capacity to attend, which in the case of Carter-Finley, would be close to 4,000 spectators.

The Carolina Panthers announced in a news release after the governor’s briefing that fans will be welcomed back to Bank of America Stadium, an outdoor venue built to seat more than 73,700 football and soccer fans, on Oct. 4 for the football game against the Arizona Cardinals.

Cooper, a sports fan, has spoken often about how much he missed sports when everything shut down in the early months of the pandemic.

Small business aid available

The governor has been criticized by some for his aggressive stance against the coronavirus that has caused massive shutdowns since March, when public health officials reported the first lab-confirmed case of COVID-19 in North Carolina.

Cooper has likened his approach to closing and reopening businesses and schools in North Carolina as “using a dimmer switch.”

Unlike some states in the southeast, Cooper chose not to turn everything back on at once, bringing sharp criticism from owners of bars, bowling alleys, indoor gyms and fitness centers.

On Tuesday, Cooper announced a $40 million relief plan that could bring some aid to those businesses, as well as to amusement parks, banquet halls, dance halls, indoor movie theaters and museums.

N.C. Mortgage, Utility and Rent Relief, or MURR, a program that will be administered by the state Department of Commerce, can provide up to $20,000 in relief funds for the small businesses that took a deeper pandemic punch than some.

“Small businesses are the backbone of our economy – powering our local communities and giving back in so many ways,” Cooper said. “They deserve our support, and this new initiative can help them weather this tough time. But substantially more help is needed for small businesses and Congress and the president must act as soon as possible.”

Under the new MURR program, small businesses may apply for up to four months of mortgage interest, rent or utility expenses if they were closed between April 1 and July 31.

A webinar about the program and more details on how to apply are on the commerce department’s website.

Cooper would take FDA-approved vaccine

As the Nov. 3 elections get closer, questions have grown about whether campaign rhetoric and politicization of the pandemic in a divided country could have a lasting impact on future public health measures as the pandemic extends into the new year.

There has been much talk about a COVID-19 vaccine and whether there has been political pressure to cut corners on safety and science.

President Donald Trump has told crowds at campaign rallies that he expects a vaccine to be ready before Election Day.

Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has offered a different timeline and underscored that even if one has been approved for use by the end of the year that it could be well into 2021 before distribution and inoculation is widespread.

Cooper said on Tuesday that he would not hesitate to take a vaccine if it were approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration.

“I would take a vaccine for COVID if it was approved by the FDA, whenever it’s my turn,” Cooper told reporters.

Distribution plans likely would make any vaccine available to seniors and frontline workers in the initial phase, public health experts have said. As those vaccines are administered, researchers would study their effectiveness and any adverse impacts and should provide a steady stream of data that can be publicly reviewed as certain checks and balances.

“I think there are going to be a lot of eyes that are going to be on the data that comes about from testing vaccines,” Cooper said. “Obviously there’s a lot of desire for a vaccine, but there’s also a lot of desire that it’s going to be effective and safe.”

Free SlowCOVIDNC app launched

Until a vaccine is widely available and effective, face masks, social distancing, COVID-19 testing and contact tracing will play an important role in public safety.

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, announced the launch of a new COVID-19 exposure app called “SlowCOVIDNC.”

Cohen downloaded the app to her phone on Monday night, she said, and encouraged others on Tuesday to do the same.

The app, which requires the use of Bluetooth, does not collect personal information or location data, Cohen said.

It tracks people through an opt-in pin system and the sharing of random IDs with other phones in the area. The IDs, or tokens, change every 10 to 20 minutes, according to DHHS.

The app measures Bluetooth signals and stores them so users can be alerted if they have been within six feet of someone for more than a few seconds who has reported a positive COVID-19 test.

The users report their test results anonymously and voluntarily.

Anyone who gets an alert can find out more about self-quarantining, testing and aid in early contact tracing that could help limit coronavirus spread.

The app could be helpful on college campuses, where students live in close housing quarters and sometimes find themselves in settings where COVID-19 can spread quickly.

“It lets you play an important part in protecting your friends, loved ones, co-workers and community,” Cohen said. “As we move around more, SlowCOVIDNC is a powerful tool to help us slow the spread in North Carolina, and the more people who use it, the better it works. So go, right now. Take out your phone, go to the app store and search for SlowCOVIDNC and download it right now for free.”

CDC messaging and ‘debate in semantics’

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention created a lot of head-scratching and conspiracy theories this week when it rolled out guidelines that downplayed the role of aerosols in COVID-19 spread, then quickly amended them.

“A draft version of proposed changes to these recommendations was posted in error to the agency’s official website,” a notice posted to the CDC website stated after removal of the aerosol language. “CDC is currently updating its recommendations regarding airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19). Once this process has been completed, the update language will be posted.”

Cohen downplayed the changes on Tuesday.

“We’ve shared a lot about how this virus spreads,” Cohen said. “It’s particles that go from the nose or the mouth and then go through the air and then could land on other surfaces or people.”

“I think we’re debating some semantics here of air,” Cohen added. “We know the particles travel through the air. The question is how long do they go in the air.”

A public health official who rarely misses an opportunity to tout the use of face coverings and social distancing, Cohen held up her mask.

“I think the important thing for us all to focus on is we know what works to prevent the spread,” Cohen, known on the street as “the three Ws lady,” said.

“We know masks work. We know it prevents the virus particles that come out of your mouth and nose from spreading. That’s why it’s important to put your mask over your mouth and your nose. So I don’t think we should get caught up in the semantics of how long does something stay in the air.

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Tuesday afternoon:

  • 3,286 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 195,549 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 905 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.
  • 176,422 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. Nor does it reflect the number of so-called “long-haul” survivors of COVID who continue to feel the effects of the disease beyond the defined “recovery” period.
  • To date, 2,824,929  tests have been completed in North Carolina. 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 (41 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.
  • 337 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,272 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 915 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.

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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.