By Anne Blythe 

North Carolina’s bars and taverns, forced to close for nearly a year in the battle against COVID-19, may reopen their doors this weekend to welcome people in for a beer, glass of wine or shot of their choice at limited capacity.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Wednesday that he was lifting the curfew that has been in place since Dec. 11 and entering a new executive order that allows larger crowds at sporting events, concert venues, amusement parks, restaurants, museums, aquariums, salons, tattoo parlors and retail facilities.

The easing of restrictions comes as North Carolina’s daily COVID case counts continue to trend downward. Hospitals are also treating fewer people battling severe illness from the coronavirus that has made 2020 feel like it has stretched months into the new year.

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After a surge of new cases and subsequent hospitalizations related to Thanksgiving and the winter holidays, Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said the trends and metrics that she and her public health team have monitored throughout the pandemic are going in the right direction.

New daily case counts are back to the level they were in October. The hospitalization numbers — 1,530 on Wednesday — are back down to what they were in November, before the surges.

The positivity rate now hovers at 6 to 7 percent, only slightly above the 5 percent goal.

Fewer people are showing up in emergency departments with COVID-19 symptoms.

Cooper noted “significant and sustained improvement” in the state’s metrics as he outlined what would be included in his newest executive order, which goes into effect Friday.

“When it comes to easing some restrictions, we’re depending on people to be responsible,” Cooper said.

The mandatory mask mandate continues.

“As more people gather together, it will be more important than ever to social distance,” Cooper said. “These proven safety protocols are vital, as this virus is still here and infecting people every day.”

What’s in the order?

Some highlights from the order include:

  • Increasing the number of people who can gather together indoors to 25 from the previous 10-person cap while continuing with the 50-person limit outdoors;
  • A 30 percent indoor occupancy limit (or 250-person cap) for bars, conference spaces, lounges, night clubs, indoor amusement park areas, movie theaters, bingo parlors and gaming facilities, and most indoor and outdoor sporting venues;
  • Amending the alcohol sales curfew to allow on-site consumption at restaurants and bars until 11 p.m.;
  • Allowing indoor event venues with more than 5,000 seats, such as many college and professional sports arenas, an exception from the 250-person cap and a crowd size of up to 15 percent of their capacity if they follow additional safety measures; and
  • A 50 percent capacity limit at restaurants, breweries, wineries, distilleries, gyms, bowling alleys, swimming pools, rock climbing facilities, museums, aquariums, outdoor areas of amusement parks, salons, barbershops and tattoo parlors.

Monitoring COVID variants

Both Cooper and Cohen cautioned that COVID-19 variants first detected in the United Kingdom and South Africa have been reported in North Carolina. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that antibodies generated by the vaccines seem to recognize the variants but have not determined whether booster shots might be needed for further protection.

“Those new COVID-19 variants are a wild card,” Cohen said. “We know these variants are here in our state and are more contagious.”

Cohen said Wednesday that North Carolina now sends a “sizable number of samples,” but only a subset of all the statewide COVID-19 testing, to the CDC to monitor for variants to a virus that constantly mutates.

“As we identify those variants by genetic sequence, we do report those publicly,” Cohen said.

On Feb. 17, the White House announced that the CDC would invest nearly $200 million in genome sequencing to identify and track COVID-19 variants.

“The pace of our genomic sequencing has scaled up from about 400 samples a week, when I started as CDC director, to now more than 9,000 samples as of the week of February 20th,” CDC director Rachel Walensky said during a White House briefing earlier Wednesday.

Walensky said that as of Feb. 23, the agency has identified nearly 1,900 cases of the U.K. variant in 45 states, including North Carolina.

Cohen said she expected North Carolina to participate in that expanded sequencing testing, “making sure that even more samples from North Carolina will be part of that surveillance effort as we go forward.”

Planning for Johnson & Johnson vaccine

North Carolina is making progress on vaccinating health care workers, people who are 65 and older and teachers who became eligible for inoculation on Wednesday.

As of 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday, more than 2.18 million doses of vaccine had been administered. Some 730,000 people have received both the first and second doses.

“In fact, more than half of the people 65 and over have been vaccinated,” Cooper said at the briefing with reporters.

The federal Food and Drug Administration released an analysis on Wednesday that offers hope that soon there could be even more vaccines available.

The FDA’s study of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine safety data supports authorizing it for emergency use similar to that given for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

If a panel of FDA advisers meeting Friday gives the OK and a CDC panel approves it over the weekend, the new vaccine should start shipping early next week.

Cohen said Wednesday that states had been told there likely will be two million doses of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine to be divided among them.

North Carolina is planning to get anywhere from 30,000 to 60,000 doses if the emergency use authorization is granted.

“We’re already planning to think about where can those doses go, how are we going to allocate that, how are we going to use that,” Cohen said. “We’re working with our vaccine providers to make sure that we have the capacity that’s waiting in the wings so the moment those vaccines become available to us we will hit the ground running.”

Worry about backslide

The administration of nearly two million vaccine doses in North Carolina played into the governor’s thinking as he eased restrictions on crowd sizes and where people can gather.

Nonetheless, Cooper and Cohen cautioned people not to go about their business as if it were February 2020 before North Carolina reported its first lab-confirmed case.

Throughout 2020, amid the politicization of masks and other pandemic protection measures, Cooper and his public health team have insisted that decisions for restrictions and lifting them would be driven by data and science.

“When you look at the restrictions that we have put in place, the mandatory mask mandate, the curfew, you know that we are serious about slowing the spread of this virus,” Cooper said. “I think that people have pulled together. Many are wearing masks and social distancing. Most businesses are complying with the executive orders. I think there’s been a positive effect. People deserve a pat on the back.”

As the weather warms and people weary from winter isolation begin to move about more and gather, Cooper and Cohen worry residents might loosen their resolve to continue the battle against COVID-19.

“Of course you worry about the potential to backslide,” Cooper said. “This is why we’re going to continue to emphasize the importance of wearing a mask and social distancing, but also why we are continuing these restrictions in place because we know that when people gather together there’s a greater chance that the virus can be transmitted.

Cooper said he hoped to be able to further ease restrictions in the months ahead.

“We hope that that will happen as more people get vaccinated and we continue following the rules,” Cooper said. “But we’re going to continue putting health and safety of people first and we’ll do what we need to do in order to make sure that that happens.”

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Wednesday afternoon:

  • 10,934 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 849,630 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 1,530 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.
  • 795,521 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, 10,030,177 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 (39 percent). While 15 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 83 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
  • 671 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
  • As of Thursday, 380 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state.
  • As of Feb. 24, 2,180,655 North Carolinians have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

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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.