Stay-at-home order extended to May 8, governor unveils phased plan for reopening N.C.

By Catharin Shepard • Staff writer • North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper today extended the stay-at-home order until May 8, and outlined a three-phase plan for gradually reopening the state. Hoke County is up to 35 known COVID-19 cases as of today (see story).

Additionally, the governor will make an announcement Friday afternoon about the status of public schools.

The state’s stay-at-home measures are working, but based on the data and White House guidance, North Carolina isn’t ready to ease restrictions, the governor said.

“After a thorough analysis of the details of testing, tracing and trends, it’s clear we are flattening the curve, but our state is not ready to lift restrictions yet. We need more time to slow the spread of the virus before we can begin easing those restrictions,” Cooper said Thursday afternoon in a live-streamed press conference.

Four important data points

Several crucial things need to happen before the state lifts restrictions, according to North Carolina Department of Health and Human Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen.

State officials are looking at four different data points to help guide decision-making.

1. COVID-like syndromic cases over 14 days: The percent of visits to the Emergency Department for COVID-19 like illness, which is declining. “This gives us the earliest read on where things are in terms of what’s going on in our healthcare systems,” Cohen said. To reopen, the state needs to see a continued decrease in COVID-like syndromic cases over a 14-day period.

2. Lab-confirmed cases over 14 days: New cases in North Carolina are still increasing, but more slowly. There has not been a downward trajectory over the past 14 days. Officials want to see a decline in this data point, which hasn’t happened yet. “We do not see that yet, and in fact today is one of the second-highest days of reported new cases that we have seen,” Cohen said. That could be because of an increase in testing in the last few days, she added. To reopen, the state needs to see decreasing or sustained leveling in lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 over a 14-day period.

3. Positive tests as a percentage of total tests over 14 days: The trajectory of positive tests as a percentage of total tests over 14 days is not declining. “We don’t see that yet,” Cohen said. To reopen, the state needs to see a decreasing number of positive tests as a percentage of total tests over a 14-day period.

4. Hospitalizations over 14 days: Hospitalizations help us understand our capacity to respond. There has not been a downward trajectory over the past 14 days. This data point is the daily count of the number of people in the hospital for treatment of COVID-19. To reopen, the state needs to see a decreasing or sustained leveling of hospitalizations over 14 days.

NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen shows the data points and steps that need to happen for officials to ease restrictions.

Adding safety measures

Additionally, three other things need to happen before the state can reopen, Cohen said. The state must increase testing, add more people to the workforce to conduct contact tracing and ensure the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE).

1. Testing: Increase daily testing from 2,500-3000 to 5,000-7,000 per day.

2. Workforce to conduct contact tracing: Increase from 250 tracers to 500 tracers statewide, and deploy digital tracing technology.

3. Availability of personal protective equipment: Ensure adequate supplies to fill requests for at least 30 days. Currently, the state has less than a 30-day supply of gowns and N95 masks.

Once those things happen, officials said, the governor’s three-phase plan could go into effect.

“Last month our state took strong actions to slow the spread of this pandemic. We know these actions save lives. But we also know that we can’t keep staying at home for the long run. Now we know what is needed to transition out of the restrictions, and what a new normal will look like,” Cooper said. “This matters not just because people are anxious to leave their homes, but because this virus has hurt so many people economically.”

Cooper’s Three-Phase Plan

In Phase 1

  • Modify the Stay At Home to order allow travel not currently defined as essential allowing people to leave home for commercial activity at any business that is allowed to be open, such as clothing stores, sporting goods stores, book shops, housewares stores and other retailers. 
  • Ensure that any open stores implement appropriate employee and consumer social distancing, enhanced hygiene and cleaning protocols, symptom screening of employees, accommodations for vulnerable workers, and provide education to employees and workers to combat misinformation 
  • Continue to limit gatherings to no more than 10 people
  • Reopen parks that have been closed subject to the same gathering limitation. Outdoor exercise will continue to be encouraged. 
  • Continue to recommend face coverings in public spaces when 6 feet of distancing isn’t possible
  • Encourage employers to continue teleworking policies
  • Continue rigorous restrictions on nursing homes and other congregant care settings 
  • Local emergency orders with more restrictive measures may remain in place. 

Phase 2
At least 2-3 weeks after Phase 1

  • Lift Stay At Home order with strong encouragement for vulnerable populations to continue staying at home to stay safe
  • Allow limited opening of restaurants, bars, fitness centers, personal care services, and other businesses that can follow safety protocols including the potential need to reduce capacity
  • Allow gathering at places such as houses of worship and entertainment venues at reduced capacity
  • Increase in number of people allowed at gatherings
  • Open public playgrounds
  • Continue rigorous restrictions on nursing homes and other congregant care settings 

Phase 3
At least 4-6 weeks after Phase 2

  • Lessen restrictions for vulnerable populations with encouragement to continue practicing physical distancing and minimizing exposure to settings where distancing isn’t possible
  • Allow increased capacity at restaurants, bars, other businesses, houses of worships, and entertainment venues
  • Further increase the number of people allowed at gatherings
  • Continue rigorous restrictions on nursing homes and other congregant care settings 

No date yet for reopening

Cooper didn’t give an exact date that the state could enter Phase 1 of the plan. It could be May 9, if the data shows the right direction by then. Or, it could take longer than that.

“We will rely on the science, the data, and the facts and on the indicators that Dr. Cohen presented,” Cooper said.

Additionally, if the state were to have a new surge of coronavirus at any point during the phased reopening, it could mean putting restrictions back in place.

“This virus is going to be with us until we have a vaccine,” the governor said. A vaccine against COVID-19 is still at least a year away from being ready.

See the governor’s executive order here.