Photo courtesy of N.C. Department of Public Safety

North Carolina will remain in Phase 3 as families across the state head into the holiday season. Additionally, the state’s indoor gathering limit will go down from 25 people to 10. The executive order will take effect on Friday and last through Dec. 4. 

Gov. Roy Cooper made the announcement Tuesday and cited two reasons for the executive order: social gatherings in October resulting in an increase of Covid-19 cases and the move into colder months. North Carolina had 297,442 Covid-19 cases as of Tuesday, with 2,582 positive cases reported on Monday. 

“Our [data] trends have avoided spikes, but they remain stubbornly high,” Cooper said during the press briefing. “That is troubling.” 

Covid-like cases, positive test rates and hospitalizations have remained steady, according to N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen. However, the number of lab-confirmed cases has continued to increase, which she said is “a new peak.” While hospitalizations aren’t up by a lot, Cohen said the number of Covid-19 cases is currently too high as the state heads into the winter months — a time when hospitals have stretched capacity.  

“Bottom line, we are on shaky ground as we head into Thanksgiving,” Cohen said. “The safest thing we can do for our loved ones is to limit travel and to avoid getting together in person, especially indoors.”

North Carolina entered Phase 3 on Oct. 2, which was set to expire Friday. This is the second extension of Phase 3. Cooper paused reopening on Oct. 22 after viral trends moved in the wrong direction. Case numbers spiked to a record 2,532 new Covid-19 cases on Oct. 15, only to replace the single-day total with 2,684 new cases the following day.

Besides limiting indoor gatherings to 10 people, other Phase 3 restrictions will remain in place:

  • Outdoor venues with more than 10,000 seats operate at 7% occupancy.
  • Smaller outdoor venues, like amphitheaters, operate outdoors at 30% capacity, or 100 guests, whichever is less.
  • Movie theaters and conference centers operate indoors at 30% capacity, or 100 seated guests, whichever is less.
  • Bars operate outdoors only at 30% capacity, or 100 guests, whichever is less.
  • Outdoor amusement parks operate at 30% occupancy.
  • Restaurants and bars aren’t allowed to serve alcohol for in-person consumption past 11 p.m. All alcoholic beverages must be consumed in the outdoor seating area.

Churches and schools

Churches and schools are excluded from the indoor gathering limit, but Cooper said the principle still applies. He suggested districts look at local numbers before determining school reopening strategies amid the increased cases. He noted that the state Department of Health and Human Services has been working with faith leaders to make sure people are safe during in-person services. 

“If you’re having in-person services, you really need to take significant steps to protect people,” Cooper said. “We’re encouraging people to still have virtual services.”

State health officials are working with the faith community to create a “faith tool kit” to help assure that churches are abiding by social distancing guidelines and protecting their congregations. 

Last month, the United House of Prayer for All People held convocation events that resulted in a cluster of Covid-19 cases and related deaths. Mecklenburg County health officials ordered the church to halt all large gatherings, but it has since been allowed to reopen under safety guidelines. 

Traveling for Thanksgiving

If families plan to travel or gather for Thanksgiving, Cohen recommended individuals get a Covid-19 test three to four days ahead. Even if results are negative, she said the test is not a free pass and individuals will still need to practice the three W’s — washing hands, waiting six feet apart and wearing masks. 

Cohen advised people who do travel into North Carolina to download the state’s SlowCOVIDNC application to help further mitigate community spread during the holidays. She said there have been more than 800 notifications of possible exposure to Covid-19 through the application. 

Cooper said the reduced gathering limit also sends a serious signal to families, friends and neighbors in North Carolina before they cut turkeys in two weeks.  

Cohen said people will be hearing a lot from the Covid-19 Task Force around the holidays because they want to track if people are wearing masks and social distancing appropriately.  

‘Hope is on the horizon’

Cohen and Cooper both referenced a new Covid-19 vaccine for the public, and a new Food and Drug Administration authorized antibody treatment for people who have a higher risk of developing severe coronavirus symptoms. 

“Hope is on the horizon,” Cohen said. “Take comfort that there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

Cohen said supply of the treatment will be limited initially, but she is pleased with the progress of the scientific community and their fight against Covid-19.

As for moving to Phase 4, Cooper said all potential future safeguards are on the table for the state to examine. Right now, he said the state is focusing on ratcheting up prevention efforts as North Carolinians enter the colder holiday period where the virus becomes more active indoors. 

“We believe in continuing to use the metrics we have in place to determine where North Carolina is,” Cooper said. 

Read FAQs about the executive order here. View the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ Guidance for Thanksgiving tips here.

Jonathan is a former QCity Metro reporter who covered Charlotte neighborhoods north of uptown. He also reported on education, public safety and health.

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