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North Carolinians will soon be able to go outside without wearing face coverings and not be in violation of the state’s mask mandate.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Wednesday that after 5 p.m. Friday face masks will no longer be required in outdoor settings, though public health officials continue to recommend them for people not yet vaccinated against COVID-19 or in close proximity to others at large gatherings. 

The mask mandate remains in place for indoor settings and is likely to stay in place until two-thirds of the adult population have rolled up their collective sleeves for a jab, Cooper said.

The number of people who may gather indoors will increase to 100 from 50, according to the order. Two hundred people may gather together outdoors, double what it has been most of April.

Occupancy limits currently in place remain the same, though.

The new executive order takes effect at 5 p.m. Friday and remains in effect until 5 p.m. June 1.

The news comes as nearly 49 percent of North Carolinians 18 and older have been at least partially vaccinated and nearly 40 percent are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Cooper also told reporters during an afternoon briefing that he expected to lift gathering limits and other capacity and social distancing restrictions on June 1 if North Carolina’s trends and metrics continue to go in the right direction.

“That is the plan,” Cooper said. “It would be great if we had two-thirds vaccinated by then, but we probably won’t.”

On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance for fully vaccinated Americans on when and if masks are needed outdoors.

“Over the past year, we have spent a lot of time telling Americans what they cannot do, what they should not do,” CDC director Rochelle Walensky said during a briefing by the White House COVID-19 Response Team. “Today, I’m going to tell you some of the things you can do if you are fully vaccinated.”

As a reminder, Walensky underscored the CDC’s definition of “fully vaccinated” as 14 days after receiving a second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or a single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“There are many situations where fully vaccinated people do not need to wear a mask, particularly if they are outdoors,” Walensky said. “If you are fully vaccinated and want to attend a small outdoor gathering with people who are vaccinated and unvaccinated or dine at an outdoor restaurant with friends from multiple households, the science shows if you’re vaccinated, you can do so safely unmasked.”

Nonetheless, the CDC director and Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, continue to recommend masks in crowded outdoor stadiums, concert arenas and other venues where it can be difficult to keep a safe distance apart.

The new executive order means that youth sports teams playing outdoors no longer are required to wear masks while on the field.

“I do want to remind folks that folks under 16 are not able to get vaccinated so they are an unvaccinated population,” Cohen said in response to a question about youth sports. “For all of our unvaccinated population, whether it’s children or adults, we continue to recommend that folks wear masks outdoors when they can’t be distant from other people. So the unvaccinated population, we continue to recommend wearing masks.”

COVID charts, graphs and vaccines

Cohen provided an update on the state’s trends and metrics on Wednesday, showing that North Carolina continues to see 1,500 to 2,000 new COVID-19 cases per day, a higher number than public health officials prefer as more contagious variants are detected.

“I will note that we are seeing some of our lowest levels of COVID testing and that context is important when interpreting this metric,” she added.

The rate of positive COVID tests for those North Carolinians getting tested is slightly higher than 5 percent, a goal of the public health team.

The number of people who are visiting emergency departments across the state with COVID-19 symptoms has dropped dramatically and has remained steady at a baseline level for weeks.

“As you can see, while our numbers are mostly stable, we have more work to do to beat back this pandemic,” Cooper said.

One metric that Cooper and his public health team would like to see go up swiftly is the number of people getting a vaccine.

That weekly number has started to plateau and even decline, a trend that is prompting the public health team to shift tactics for trying to get more people immunized against COVID-19.

“No longer are we thinking about large, mass vaccination sites, but rather making sure that it’s easy for folks to access very close to their homes,” Cohen said.

More and more, vaccines are being allocated to pharmacies, physicians’ offices and even to dentists who want to administer shots to their patients. Many counties are relying on mobile clinics and smaller community events to bring shots to reluctant or difficult to reach populations.

Departments such as the Rockingham County Division of Public Health have started services to get vaccines to the homebound.

“We now know that most folks, not only here in North Carolina, but around the country, can access vaccine within five miles of their home,” Cohen said. “We want folks to know, there aren’t long lines. There isn’t a scramble to get appointments. There’s supply here in North Carolina, it’s easy for everyone to access, and they’re completely free.”

DHHS also has launched a “Bringing Summer Back” get out the vaccine campaign.

During two weeks in May and two weeks in June, community organizations will rally together across the state to promote vaccination.

Elizabeth City, a public health issue

The push for vaccination comes as Elizabeth City residents and others from across the state and around the country are wrestling with the death of Andrew Brown Jr., a Black man who died last week after Pasquotank County sheriff’s deputies opened fire while serving drug-related arrest warrants on him.

The case quickly renewed chants of “Black Lives Matter,” less than a week after Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer was convicted of second-degree murder, second-degree manslaughter and third-degree murder in the death of George Floyd.

The cases of Black men dying at the hands of police have been described by past leaders of the American Medical Association as a public health issue that no longer can be ignored.

Cooper, who gave his State of the State address to the state House of Representatives on Monday, called for stamping out long-standing institutional racism. 

“We must all stand together to stop racial injustice in North Carolina,” Cooper told House members earlier this week. “In all the areas that are important for people’s success — health care, education, economic strength, the justice system — we must confront systems that favor some and harm others and we must fix them.”

On Wednesday, Cooper was asked about the Brown case during his briefing with reporters.

A Superior Court judge ruled earlier in the day to delay any public release of law enforcement body camera footage for at least 30 days as requested by the Pasquotank County District Attorney.

Brown’s immediate family members and their lawyer will have access to the footage within 10 days, according to the judge’s ruling.

Cooper was asked whether the delay was healthy for a city, state and country hungering for answers.

State law, adopted in 2016, requires a court order for the release of law enforcement body camera footage, a statute that can leave the public in the dark about what happened while tensions are high.

Cooper had not seen the court proceedings on the potential release of the camera footage before the briefing with reporters and did not want to comment on the judge’s ruling.

“I continue to support a change in the law that would presume these kinds of videos are public record and that a court would have to come in and find reasons not to have them released to the public,” Cooper said Wednesday. “The law is the other way now, they can only be released unless a judge says they can be released. I’ll just continue to say I believe that for trust in the system and confidence that these videos should be released as quickly as possible.”

Any U.S. Senate runs planned?

As North Carolina continues to plot its way out of the pandemic, neither Cooper nor Cohen has plans to seek the U.S. Senate seat that will be on the ballot in 2022.

Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from Winston-Salem, has announced that he will not seek another term, leaving many in the political arena to speculate about who might be in the field of candidates.

Cooper has said already that he did not plan to seek the office. On Tuesday, he added that he had no plans at this point in the process to endorse anyone who had announced their campaign.

Cohen came to the podium after that to respond to a question about whether she would be launching a campaign.

“I have no plans to run for the United States Senate,” Cohen said. “I love my job here, working for the governor and for the people of North Carolina.”

Cohen could be heard laughing in the background as the governor responded to the news when back at the podium.

“Well that’s a relief,” Cooper said.

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Wednesday afternoon:

  • 12,538 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 965,536 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 1,117 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.
  • 924,490 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, 12,322,425 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 82 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state. 
  • 250 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
  • As of Wednesday, 148 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state.
  • As of April 28, 7,017,344 North Carolinians have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

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.