By Lindsay Marchello
RALEIGH — During a May 18 news conference, Gov. Roy Cooper did not provide definitive answers about whether North Carolina would enter Phase Two of his reopening plan this weekend.
The second phase of his three-pronged plan would relax some of the country’s most stringent rules on state businesses and residents. North Carolina entered Phase One on May 8.
Phase One allowed state parks and some retail businesses to open with safety precautions in place. Phase Two would see even more restrictions lifted, potentially allowing hair and nail salons, gyms, and restaurants to open with limited capacity. People at higher risk of contracting the virus would be encouraged to continue sheltering in place.
Exact details on Phase Two are lacking. But North Carolina may not enter the next phase May 22, the earliest date Cooper has set for the next round.
Many residents and businesses are growing weary of the lockdowns, and some questions from journalists mirrored that sentiment. Cooper didn’t waiver, continually relying on talking points and using “data” in general, non-specific terms to defend the restrictions.
“We are continuing to monitor the data and the metrics that we’ve laid out for our state,” Cooper said. “We will ease restrictions and move to Phase Two only if we are headed in the right direction with our data.”
How much lead time businesses will have to prepare for Phase Two isn’t clear. The governor said he will announce sometime this week whether the state could enter the next phase. A May 22 reopening would leave little time for restaurants to schedule employees, restock pantries, and sanitize facilities.
Meanwhile, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, also a Democrat, said Monday he will issue draft guidance for reopening restaurants in the next day or two — roughly a week before Polis is likely to allow restaurants in the Centennial State to reopen May 25. The draft guidance might include what capacity restaurants could operate at and whether they can use outdoor dining areas, sidewalks, and parking lots as additional space to serve patrons while honoring social distancing practices.
If North Carolina fails to enter Phase Two this weekend, the state will take a closer look at a regional approach to reopening, Cooper said. The governor said viruses don’t respect county lines, even though rural areas have relatively low rates of infection. Several counties have passed resolutions urging the governor to allow them to reopen at their own pace.
As North Carolina contemplates lifting some more restrictions, neighboring states are miles ahead in terms of reopening.
It is still too early to tell the effects of easing restrictions in other states, Cooper said.
“We will keep a close eye on what is happening in Georgia and South Carolina to make determinations about us going into additional phases and what we might need to do to protect ourselves,” Cooper said.
The number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb in North Carolina, but so does the number of tests conducted. While North Carolina has increased testing, the rate of positive tests has remained relatively stable, at about 7%, said Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Hospitalizations remain stable, too, Cohen said. More than 19,000 COVID-19 cases in North Carolina have been confirmed, with 661 deaths. More than 255,000 tests have been completed.
Editor’s note: Marchello is reporter for Carolina Journal News Service