Gov. Roy Cooper speaks at a press conference, discussing his COVID-19 policies. Screen image from UNC-TV

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North Carolina officials will allow gyms, aquariums, museums and other spaces to open beginning Friday evening for the first time since state actions to restrict the spread of the new coronavirus closed them earlier this year.

Bars, nightclubs and movie theaters will remain closed, and capacity restrictions will be in place as the businesses that the state previously required to close can slowly open back up.

“Big gatherings are among the most dangerous settings for the transmission of disease,” Gov. Roy Cooper said during a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

[The latest: North Carolina coronavirus updates]

Officials have been reluctant to allow gyms to reopen because of the possibility of viral transmission. People exhale more forcefully while working out, expelling droplets into the air. If those particles include viruses, other people nearby can inhale them and catch COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

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Because of that risk, state officials are allowing gyms to open at only 30% capacity. Boutique exercise studios can also reopen as long as members can be socially distant. Other exercise venues, such as bowling alleys, can also reopen, but again, with capacity restrictions.

Cooper called this “Phase 2.5” and likened reopening the economy to a dimmer switch. Citing lower hospitalization numbers and stabilization of the other metrics, Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said the pandemic is not over — far from it.

“Just because we are easing the restrictions on gyms doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for everyone,” Cohen said.

“More than half of adults in North Carolina have at least one of the chronic diseases that put you at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.”

State officials will also allow museums and aquariums to open at 50% capacity.

Children can once again visit outdoor playgrounds, and the limits for mass gatherings outdoors have increased to 50 people under the plan Cooper announced Tuesday. Indoor gatherings are restricted to 25 or fewer people.

The changes take effect 5 p.m. Friday.

Other pandemic-related rules are continuing. The statewide curfew for on-site alcohol sales after 11 p.m. was set to expire Monday. Cooper signed an executive order to extend that ban through Oct. 2.

Bars have been closed by executive order since mid-March. Gyms soon followed, as the governor signed a stay-at-home order, and have not been allowed to reopen since. Research has shown time and again that prolonged exposure to others while indoors, along with forceful exhalations, increases the chances of transmission of the coronavirus.

Earlier this week, some gym owners across the state announced plans to defy the governor’s earlier closure order. Although the governor’s announcement preempts this move on their part, it remains to be seen whether they will continue to enforce capacity limits and other health rules at their businesses.

Federal cash to spend

The special measures enacted to combat the spread of COVID-19 continue to create economic challenges for the state. A partial answer to those challenges may come in additional funds the N.C. General Assembly expects to release soon, legislators announced Tuesday.

The General Assembly is set to reconvene this week to debate a budget deal to allocate most of the $552 million remaining from the $3.6 billion in federal CARES Act funds allocated to the state.

The bill would send $325 to households with at least one child, spending $440 million. This would apply to families who claimed at least one child as a dependent on their 2018 tax returns.

The state would distribute other funds for a $50-a-week unemployment supplement. Another $40 million would go for state matches for federal disaster aid for further hurricane recovery and damage in Allegheny County from a recent earthquake.

Another $5 million in the bill would go for election assistance, and $30 million would be added into the state’s broadband grants program.  

The legislation has not been formally introduced.

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Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, said the state continues to wait on further federal guidance for spending current federal aid, along with the possibility of another federal relief bill. He said while there had been hope that could happen before the General Assembly returned, it didn’t, and legislators needed to move forward.  

“I do think this is a very good deal, spending over a billion dollars, getting it out to our citizens across the state, and trying to do it in a uniform approach,” Jackson said in a press conference at the legislature.

Last week, Cooper introduced a $1.5 billion plan for spending CARES Act funds along with two major bond offerings for public health, schools and infrastructure. GOP leaders, who control the General Assembly, quickly panned the governor’s plan.

Legislators reconvene Thursday to take up the new bill in a session that they expect to wrap up by the end of the week.

Democrats responded to the Republican legislators’ proposal, saying the legislation falls short of what’s needed.

“It’s a Band-Aid that looks good in a press release but does nothing to solve the long-term effects of this pandemic,” House Minority Leader Darren Jackson, D-Wake, said in a statement after the budget announcement.

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Kate Martin and Kirk Ross

Kate Martin is lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press. Kirk Ross is Carolina Public Press capital bureau chief. Send an email to info@carolinapublicpress.org to contact members of the Carolina Public Press news team.

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