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NC maintains reopening guidance as COVID numbers worsen

By BRYAN ANDERSON

RALEIGH — North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper said Wednesday that the state will keep its reopening guidelines in place for three more weeks, at a time when key coronavirus metrics worsen.

Since Cooper increased mass indoor and outdoor gathering limits and allowed bars, movie theaters, amusement parks and other businesses to partially reopen earlier this month, the spread of the virus has increased.

The state on Wednesday eclipsed 4,000 deaths and 250,000 cases since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, noted that North Carolina saw its highest single-day increases in COVID-19 cases to date on two occasions last week.

Current hospitalizations have also hit months-long highs, with more than 1,200 patients being treated now for the virus. Daily deaths also have climbed. The 53 virus-related deaths North Carolina reported on Tuesday amounted to the highest one-day total during the pandemic.

For the first time this month, the state on Wednesday reported that the percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive surpassed 7% on consecutive days.

“Because several of our trends are moving in the wrong direction, North Carolina will remain paused in Phase 3 for the next three weeks,” Cooper said. “We hope that greater enforcement, strong community leadership and more people doing the right things can lower these numbers.”

Cooper, who has long said science is driving his decision-making process, insisted the metrics do concern him, which is why he decided not to go forward with reopening more parts of the state’s economy. Still, he was adamant that the state isn’t facing a dramatic surge in coronavirus spread.

“We aren’t in the middle of a spike and we haven’t seen one yet in this process largely due to the people’s persistence out there and to the strong action that we’ve taken, but we will continue to watch these trends and we’ll do whatever is necessary,” Cooper said.

Cohen said Cooper’s transition to Phase 3 that took effect on Oct. 2 and was extended on Wednesday from Oct. 23 to Nov. 13 is not the only thing causing the increase in cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Still, she said looser restrictions may be contributing to growing complacency among North Carolinians tired of following public health protocols, such as mask wearing and maintaining 6 feet (1.8 meters) of physical separation from one another.

“Moving forward in Phase 3 may have not just eased restrictions on a few businesses but may have folks put their guard down a bit,” Cohen said. “I think that’s the thing we want to make sure that folks are putting their guard back up (and) being vigilant as we go forward here.”

Cohen sent a letter to local officials in 36 counties on Wednesday calling for law enforcement agencies and public health officials to fine businesses that don’t enforce the statewide mask mandate and go above and beyond current health public guidelines. She encouraged the counties to reduce gathering limits, close off alcohol sales earlier than the current 11 p.m. limit, close bars and nightclubs and limit restaurant activities.

Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who is running to unseat Cooper in this year’s gubernatorial election, accused the governor of ceding leadership and unjustly punishing businesses.

“To put it bluntly: Governor Cooper is attempting to use local governments to punish businesses and individuals doing what they can to survive,” Forest said in a statement. “He has repeatedly said he has full authority over his COVID shutdown, which means he also gets 100% of the responsibility. Passing the buck to local businesses and municipalities is the antithesis of leadership.”

Cooper said he has long encouraged stricter enforcement of public health guidelines.

“What we’re doing now in working with local governments to slow the spread of the virus is no different from how we started this thing from back in March and April and June,” Cooper said. “We set a floor with statewide restrictions, but at that time, we also encouraged local governments that if they were seeing more viral spread in their community and it worked better for their community, they could use restrictions that are greater than the state floor.”