By Anne Blythe

Restaurants, bars, barbershops, museums, retail stores and more could see a welcomed pickup in activity in the coming weeks, perhaps pushing some businesses closer to the kind of busyness they experienced before everything went haywire last spring as the novel coronavirus outbreak evolved into a global pandemic.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced Tuesday that he was easing statewide restrictions that have kept many places throughout North Carolina operating at a limited capacity for much of the past year as COVID-19 menaced the healthy and frail.

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As more people become fully vaccinated against the once-novel coronavirus and the state’s trends and metrics prompt more optimism about getting to the other side of the pandemic, Cooper has increased capacity limits and given the OK for more people to gather indoors and outdoors.

Sports teams will have larger crowds in the stands. Amusement parks can fully open. Restaurants, bars, breweries and wineries no longer have to stop serving alcohol at 11 p.m.

The mask mandate remains in effect, as do social distancing requirements. A recently published Meredith Poll that touched base with 699 registered voters in North Carolina from March 12 to March 15 found that 64.2 percent were opposed to eliminating the mask mandate.

The presence of more contagious COVID-19 variants first detected in other parts of the world and the country trouble public health officials who’ve warned of potential case surges if people become too lax with safety measures.

“These are significant changes but they can be done safely,” Cooper said.

“We’ve said all along that the science and the data would be our guide in this dimmer switch approach, and they show we can do this,” he continued. “North Carolina has done the work to slow the spread of this virus and get people vaccinated, and I’m grateful for the efforts of people across the state.”

What’s changing?

Cooper’s latest executive order, which goes into effect at 5 p.m. Friday and lasts until 5 p.m. April 30, is not a one-size-fits-all for businesses, entertainment venues and sports arenas across the state.

The order allows 100 percent occupancy with mask requirements and six feet of social distancing at:

  • Aquariums;
  • Barbershops;
  • Museums;
  • Retail businesses;
  • Salons, other personal care and grooming businesses; and
  • Tattoo parlors.

The following places can open at 75 percent capacity indoors and 100 percent capacity outdoors with masks and six feet of social distancing:

  • Amusement parks;
  • Restaurants, breweries, distilleries and wineries;
  • Bowling alleys, skating rinks, rock-climbing walls and other similar recreation venues;
  • Gyms, fitness centers, yoga studios; and
  • Swimming pools.

These places can operate at 50 percent capacity indoors and outdoors with masks and six-foot social distancing measures:

  • Bars;
  • Meeting, reception and conference venues;
  • Lounges and nightclubs; and
  • Professional, collegiate, high school and amateur sports arenas and fields.

Movie theaters and gaming facilities can operate at 50 percent capacity indoors and up to 75 percent outdoors with mask and social distancing requirements.

The indoor crowd limit will be no more than 50 people. Up to 100 people can gather together outdoors.

“We are in a promising place,” Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, told reporters. “With North Carolina’s COVID-19 key metrics improving and vaccinations increasing, we can responsibly use our dimmer switch approach to easing restrictions guided by science and data.”

Millions in NC ‘deserve credit’ for success

North Carolina’s daily case counts have been trending downward for several weeks now, but have plateaued near 1,000 new case counts each day, higher than Cohen and her public health team prefer. On Tuesday, there were 1,062 new lab-confirmed cases, according to the NCDHHS dashboard.

The positivity rate hovers at close to 5 percent, a mark that public health leaders find acceptable, if not ideal.

The number of people showing up in emergency departments with coronavirus symptoms has been on a continued downward slide, getting close to the pandemic baseline.

Hospitalizations are higher than public health leaders would like to see, but they have dropped from the record highs after the winter holiday surges of more than 3,900 people in the hospital in January down to 956 people hospitalized on Tuesday.

The numbers are dropping as more people get vaccinated in North Carolina.

As of Tuesday, more than 4.1 million COVID-19 vaccine doses had been administered in North Carolina, with demand for shots continuing to outpace the weekly allotment of doses sent to the state.

More than 31.7 percent of people 18 and older have been partially inoculated with one dose of vaccine and 18.8 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.

“The millions of people in North Carolina who’ve worn masks and acted responsibly deserve credit for this success,” Cooper told reporters during an afternoon briefing.

Reaching the unreached

Though demand for the vaccine remains greater than the supply, both Cooper and Cohen said a time could come when the state will shift strategy and make a push to get shots to those who are reluctant, home bound or difficult to reach.

“We know that there are hard-to-reach populations, particularly for home-bound,” Cohen said. “It’s particularly challenging because the way these vaccines are both shipped and stored. …They need to be frozen, they need to be administered quickly. So going to individual houses and only vaccinating one or maybe two people is challenging.”

That, Cohen said, is where the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine can be a “game changer.” North Carolina received an initial shipment of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine shortly after the Food and Drug Administration approved it for emergency use in late February.

That was for one week only. Shipments should pick up again in April, giving residents an option of a one-and-done shot that is easier to get to far-flung places without deep freezers.

“It needs a different kind of refrigeration, so that will allow us to be a lot more mobile,” Cohen said.

Cooper and Cohen stress that not only are they trying to get lots of shots in arms as quickly as possible, but they want to do it equitably.

North Carolina plans to shift its allocation formula away from county population-based to try to get more doses to counties with low vaccination rates.

“We need a mix of strategies,” Cohen added. “Some folks are going to be able to come to high through-put sites, like the one in Greensboro, or in other places that the governor and I have visited. But we know we need to get hyper-mobile.”

In Greensboro, National Guard and Air Force teams administer 3,000 shots per day at a federally sponsored FEMA clinic at the Four Season Town Centre.

“We do have a lot of folks who are going to churches and doing vaccine events or having folks go to local pharmacies, to their primary care doctor’s office, to federal health centers,” Cohen added. “…We know we’re going to have to build on that as supplies increase.”

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Tuesday afternoon:

  • 11,854 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 899,164 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 956 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.
  • 864,755 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, 11,057,814 tests have been completed in North Carolina. As of July 7, 2020, 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 84 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
  • 360 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
  • As of Thursday, 240 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state.
  • As of March 23, 3,811,514 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.