A couple makes their way back to their car while wearing face masks after shopping at Lowe’s Home Improvement in Lumberton, NC on May 14, 2020. Masks are not mandatory at the shopping center in Lumberton. [Melissa Sue Gerrits/The Carolina Public Press]
A couple make their way back to their car while wearing face masks Thursday after shopping at Lowe’s Home Improvement in Lumberton. Masks are not mandatory at the shopping center, but state officials strongly encourage them during the current Phase 1 stage of reopening in North Carolina. Melissa Sue Gerrits / The Carolina Public Press

Gov. Roy Cooper eased the stay-at-home restrictions in North Carolina late last week as he launched Phase 1 of reopening, but only by a notch.

While the stay-at-home order continues to limit the spread of the new coronavirus, now many more businesses can open.

[The latest: North Carolina coronavirus daily updates]

Retail businesses can operate at up to 50% of capacity as long as they encourage customers to stay apart from one another and sanitize the business frequently.

Salons, gyms, barbershops and theaters will remain closed through the duration of Phase 1, which could end as early as May 22, the Friday before Memorial Day weekend.

When asked Tuesday if he would end Phase 1 early, Cooper said he didn’t think so.

“We need that whole period of time to determine how we are doing,” he said. So far, “we are pleased with North Carolina’s numbers. … Continue to stay home as much as possible.”

Throughout all phases, restrictions are in place for nursing homes and residential care facilities to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

State officials have said they will only move to later phases by examining the data.

Health officials are also stressing what they call the three W’s to slow the spread of the virus:

  • Wear a mask.
  • Wash your hands.
  • Wait 6 feet from other people.
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Phase 1 of reopening explained

This began May 8 and is currently scheduled to run until at least May 22. While health officials still urge people to remain home as much as possible, most businesses can open as long as they restrict the number of customers there at one time.

People can now leave home to shop and visit parks. Companies are also encouraged to allow workers to continue to work from home when possible. Gatherings are still limited to 10 or fewer people, and health officials are recommending that people wear face coverings in public when they cannot observe social distancing from one another.

Phase 2 of reopening explained

This is not set to start automatically but potentially could begin May 22. The decision is up to Cooper.

The stay-at-home order would be lifted in Phase 2, with people most at risk for serious complications or death from COVID-19 — this includes older adults, smokers, those with various health conditions and obesity, so about half of North Carolina’s population — encouraged to continue staying at home.

Bars and restaurants along with salons and barbershops would be allowed open in some capacity, Cooper said Thursday. Those businesses would have additional social distancing rules and be required to wipe down surfaces more often, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said Thursday. Churches will be allowed to reopen their indoor venues at reduced capacities.

The earliest the state can consider reopening its bars, restaurants, salons and barbershops is May 22.

“I know everyone wants a haircut, including me,” Cohen said Wednesday. “We will get there when we pull together as a state.”

By moving forward in phases, Cohen said, state leaders are considering the safety and health of the population. That includes “mental health, spiritual health and financial health,” Cohen said.

“I know that we are trying to strike the right balance in taking a measured and phased approach to reopening as we go,” she said. Even when the stay-at-home orders are lifted, “We are going to have a different way of moving through the world.”

Phase 3 of reopening explained

Phase 3 would begin when the governor decides that Phase 2 is working well enough. It might last four to six weeks after the end of Phase 2, provided improvements are sustained.

Social distancing — remaining 6 feet apart or more from others not in your household — will remain a recommendation for populations at risk of serious injuries or death from COVID-19.

Churches, restaurants, entertainment venues and other public indoor spaces will be allowed to hold more people. The number of people allowed at a gathering will also increase from 10 people.

But health officials will continue to watch for a resurgence of the virus, as well as a potential second wave.

“The virus will be with us for a while,” Cooper said Tuesday.

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

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