Sports, bars and curfew: NC governor eases COVID restrictions but emphasizes safety

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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan, Adam Wagner
·6 min read
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North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper on Wednesday eased several statewide coronavirus restrictions as the state’s new cases have dropped significantly since the start of 2021.

Cooper announced that the curfew has been lifted, bars will be allowed to reopen indoors, indoor gathering sizes will increased and more sports fans will be allowed at games.

The lifting of restrictions comes at the state has been under coronavirus restrictions for nearly a year. The new executive order will start Friday at 5 p.m. and last until March 26.

“When it comes to easing some restrictions, we’re depending on people to be responsible,” Cooper said.

Here’s what’s new:

  • The curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. will be lifted.

  • Bars will be allowed to reopen at 30% capacity, including indoors. Capacity will be capped at 250 people. Last call will be at 11 p.m.

  • Social gathering size will be 25 people indoors (up from 10 indoors) and 50 people outdoors.

  • The curfew on alcohol sales will be extended from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.

  • Businesses that were operating at 30% capacity no longer have a 100-person cap. That includes outdoor sports fields and venues, outdoor bars, outdoor amusement parks and other outdoor businesses.

  • More spectators will be allowed at high school, college and professional sports events. The number allowed will depend on the venue size.

  • Indoor arenas with a capacity of as many as 5,000 people will be able to open with up to 15% capacity, as long as they follow safety protocols.

What restrictions remain in place:

  • A statewide mask mandate.

  • There are still 50% capacity restrictions on businesses and retail establishments, including restaurants, breweries and wineries, retail, gyms, museums, aquariums, barbers and personal care venues, pools and outdoor amusement parks..

“Today’s action is a show of confidence and trust, but we must remain cautious,” Cooper said. “People are losing their loved ones each day. Many of us are weary, but we cannot let the weariness win. Now is the time to put our strength and resilience to work so we can continue to turn the corner.”

While cases have stabilized some and more people are receiving the vaccine, the coronavirus remains deadly and a new more contagious variant has been detected in North Carolina. Tuesday, North Carolina reported 11,074 deaths since the pandemic began. The state reported more than 10,000 deaths on Feb. 9.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, said Tuesday that officials are trying to balance health and safety with the easing of restrictions. They are looking at specific settings and the kinds of activities that take place there.

“We will move forward and ease restrictions, but you’re going to continue to hear us talk about the three Ws and the importance of it,” Cohen said Tuesday.

The state has been under Phase 3 of a reopening plan that started last summer of 2020. The current phase of the restrictions has been extended and changed several times. The current executive order includes a curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., statewide mask mandate, indoor gathering size limited to 10 people and outdoor gathering size limited to 50 people. Alcohol sales have been capped at 9 p.m.

Cooper has repeatedly used the phrase “dimmer switch” to describe the easing of restrictions on the state.

The North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association sent the governor a letter on Feb. 15 urging him to lift restrictions in his new order. President/CEO Lynn Minges wrote that they were encouraged by increasing vaccinations and decreasing case counts, hospitalizations and deaths in North Carolina due to coronavirus.

“Nearly a year of capacity limits, curfews and restrictions on alcohol service continue to take a devastating toll on our businesses,” Minges wrote.

On Tuesday, Zack Medford, president of the N.C. Bar and Tavern Association, also urged Cooper to lift the curfew and allow bar sales indoors again.

“Now is the time to allow all bars to reopen safely,” Medford wrote in a news release Tuesday.

“We’re just asking for Gov. Roy Cooper to turn the dimmer switch up a notch. We’re asking him to allow bars to operate at 30 percent capacity inside, and let them serve until 11 p.m. We can do it safely. We can do it wearing masks, and we can do it socially distant,” Medford said.

Schools decisions

Cooper has also had a bill on his desk for a week, Senate Bill 37, that would require North Carolina’s 115 public school districts to offer some sort of in-person learning. Cooper has said he doesn’t support the bill, and instead has urged school districts to reopen while complying with the existing guidance and safety guidelines in place.

The governor said by mid-March, 95 of the state’s 115 local school districts would have some in-person instruction.

The majority of schools already are open under the Plan A for elementary schools and Plan B for middle and high schools. Plan B requires six feet of social distancing, while Plan A does not. All schools have a mask mandate. The bill does not include charter schools or private schools. Some school districts, such as Durham Public Schools, have been using Plan C, or all virtual, since August.

Cooper told reporters last week that he could sign different legislation “or let this run its course.” The legislature has not passed a different schools reopening bill this week, however. Cooper has 10 days to sign, veto or let SB 37 become law without his signature. The deadline is Feb. 27.

Vaccine update

Wednesday, teachers, educators and childcare workers became eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine after the governor gave them in priority in Group 3 of the vaccine distribution. Other frontline essential workers will be eligible starting March 10. Health care workers and people age 65 and older are currently being vaccinated as well.

There have been 2.13 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine administered in North Carolina as of Wednesday, with 1.36 million people receiving at least one dose. Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines require two doses.

Many providers had to delay appointments last week after a winter storm prevented all of the expected vaccine from Moderna and some of the expected Pfizer vaccine from reaching North Carolina. Those doses started arriving Tuesday, according to Cohen, with deliveries continuing into Wednesday.

That means many vaccine providers across the state will be giving two weeks of shots this week.