Every day, our journalism dismantles barriers and shines a light on the critical overlooked and under-reported issues important to all North Carolinians.
Before you go …
Thanks for reading. If you like what you are reading and believe in independent, nonpartisan journalism like ours—journalism the way it should be—please contribute to keep us going. Reporting like this isn’t free to produce and we cannot do this alone. Thank you!
For weeks, Gov. Roy Cooper and state health officials have urged residents and retailers to follow social distancing practices that will slow the spread of the new coronavirus.
Starting at 5 p.m. Monday, that encouragement will include new maximum occupancy standards and mandated social distancing markings for retail businesses, as well as new requirements for frequent cleaning of stores. Any violations of these rules will be punishable as a Class 2 misdemeanor.
The latest in a flood of executive orders from the governor in recent weeks, a new order Cooper announced Thursday also includes additional provisions to encourage social distancing and promote the health of North Carolina residents living or working in long-term care facilities during the coronavirus pandemic.
As Cooper introduced the new rules at a press conference with N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen, they also joined in calling on residents to sacrifice family and religious traditions during Easter and Passover to promote public health this year.
New deal for retailers
Normal maximum occupancy standards for retailers are set to protect people from becoming trapped in a fire. Under the governor’s new order, to prevent damage to health from the very different threat of a contagious disease, the new maximum occupancy will be 20% of the previously stated fire capacity for the business. If a business has a capacity of 100, then it will be allowed to have no more than 20 combined customers and employees on-site at any time.
In addition, no more than five customers will be allowed for every 1,000 square feet of a business, including areas that are not normally accessible to customers.
Retailers will be required to post staff at exits and entrances to control these limits and have the numbers for the business posted in a conspicuous place.
Stores will also have to place markings 6 feet apart at cash register lines and other high-traffic areas, such as deli lines.
Space must also be marked outside the business to help customers who are waiting due to the reduced maximum capacity rule.
Besides social distancing, stores are ordered to perform “frequent and routine environmental cleaning and disinfection of high-touch areas with a disinfectant approved by the Environmental Protection Agency” for killing the new coronavirus.
The order notes that if businesses can’t enforce the new rules, then they will have to close.
While previous state orders deferred to local orders when they are stricter, this time the governor said he wants uniformity, and the new state orders for maximum occupancy will be the law, preempting any existing or new local rules, regardless of which is stricter.
While those measures will have the force of law, Cooper included language in his order encouraging businesses to supply and train employees to use protective masks, tell sick employees to stay home, mark 6-foot spacings within staff-only areas, and provide both employees and customers with sanitizer and disinfecting wipes at entrances and exits.
Cooper also encouraged stores to have designated shopping times for seniors, who are considered high-risk for more severe illness if they become infected with the virus.
The governor recommended the use of one-way shopping aisles, curbside pickup and no-contact checkout to further assist in social distancing.
Long-term care measures
A separate section of Cooper’s latest order places new mandatory requirements on skilled nursing facilities, which are optional but strongly encouraged for other long-term care facilities.
This action comes after several long-term care facilities across North Carolina had large outbreaks of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, this week, including in some counties that had relatively few other cases.
Skilled nursing facilities will have to ask staff to stay home if they are unwell, screen staff for symptoms and elevated temperature, cancel communal dining and group activities inside and outside the facility, require all staff to wear masks as long as supplies are available and monitor all residents for symptoms.
They will also be required to immediately notify the local health department if any resident has a new case of COVID-19, confirmed or suspected. A cluster of three or more residents or staff with new-onset respiratory illness within 72 hours will also trigger a notice to local health officials.
The provisions in the order for long-term care facilities go into effect at 5 p.m. Friday.
Worship and holidays
“It has been strange not going to church on Sundays,” Cooper said during Thursday’s press conference. “It will be hard not to be in the pew on Easter Sunday.”
But Cooper and Cohen encouraged residents to observe their faiths and celebrate the holidays while exercising social distancing.
Cohen described attending a long-distance Passover observance with family members in multiple states this week.
“This year’s holidays will look a little different for all of us,” Cooper said. But he called on residents to make sacrifices now to ensure the state’s long-term ability to handle the COVID-19 pandemic.
Correction: The area restriction for retailers is 5 people per 1,000 square feet under the new order. As initially published, the article improperly added zeros after the 5.