Gov. Roy Cooper discusses his COVID-19 policies during a press conference earlier this year. Screen grab from UNC-TV

The state will reopen to commerce in three phases, but only when certain health benchmarks are met, Gov. Roy Cooper and N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen announced Thursday.

But for now, the state stays closed, Cooper said, also announcing an extension of his stay-at-home order until May 8.

When and how state officials lift restrictions on daily business and individual activities depend largely on an adequate supply of personal protective equipment, like gowns, N95 masks and face shields, along with data that shows that the spread of the new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, is slowing or stable.

[The latest: North Carolina coronavirus daily updates]

Right now, without that equipment, the state can’t even gather enough COVID-19 testing data to determine how the state is doing.

“It is important to get the economy moving,” Cooper said. However, “I will not risk the health of our people or our hospitals, and easing these restrictions now would do that.”

Health trends need to change

Cohen said health officials are closely watching health trends over two weeks. When the 14-day trends improve in several areas, then the state can consider loosening restrictions. Improvement can mean a downward trend or “sustained leveling” of the number of people who test positive for COVID-19.

The number of people reporting COVID-like symptoms has been going down at area hospitals, Cohen said. The percentage of lab-confirmed cases to the total number of tests administered over 14 days must also go down, and Cohen said hospitalizations of people with the virus will have to drop as well.

The 14-day trend for the number of reported positive cases must also go down. Thursday showed 388 new positive cases compared with Wednesday, one of the biggest single-day increases.

But even if the state shows improvements in these four areas, Cohen said, the number of COVID-19 tests completed per day must increase from the current roughly 2,500 to 3,000 people tested per day to 5,000 to 7,000 tests completed per day.

The state will also need to double the workforce of people who conduct “contact tracing” — detective work to see who a person who tests positive for the new coronavirus has been in contact with for the days leading up to the positive test.

The state also needs a robust supply of personal protective equipment — at least 30 days’ worth — which is needed to administer tests and care for patients.

Benchmarks and phases of reopening

Cooper said if the health benchmarks are met and if there’s enough personal protective equipment for health care workers, then the state will consider allowing people to leave home for more than just essential living supplies.

“Parks can reopen so long as they follow mass gathering rules,” Cooper said. “Face coverings will still be recommended in public when social distancing isn’t possible.”

For phase two, the stay-at-home orders would be lifted, but those at greatest risk of severe illness and death would still be asked to remain at home for their own safety. Churches, bars and restaurants would be allowed to open, but only at reduced capacity. Hair salons and barbershops might also reopen under this phase.

“The number of people allowed at a mass gathering will be increased,” Cooper said.

If four to six weeks have passed in phase two and the state continues to show favorable health benchmarks, then phase three could be enacted.

During phase three, the capacity for restaurants and bars would increase compared with phase two. Strict rules would continue to be applied to nursing homes and other congregate care facilities. The number of people allowed at mass gatherings would again increase.

“As we move through these phases, if our infections spike or our benchmark trends start to move in the wrong direction, we may have to move to a previous phase in order to protect public health,” Cooper said.

Nearly 720,000 North Carolinians have filed for unemployment since March 15, the Division of Employment Security reported Thursday morning. The state has paid out more than $636 million to more than 280,000 unemployed workers.

“We know that a lot of people are hurting out there, and people want to get back to work,” Cooper said. “I think most people understand we need to be safe about it.”

Kate Martin

Kate Martin is lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press. Email her at kmartin@carolinapublicpress.org.

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