Chai Pani employee Chris O'Leary handed a take-out order to Andrea Guion on November 17, 2020 at the downtown Asheville eatery. Chai Pani is now offering take-out only and their indoor seating remains closed, though they have added three picnic tables on a section of sidewalk in front of the establishment. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

by Anne Blythe, North Carolina Health News 

North Carolina’s bars and taverns, forced to close for nearly a year in the battle against COVID-19, may reopen their doors this weekend to welcome people in for a beer, glass of wine or shot of their choice at limited capacity.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Wednesday that he was lifting the curfew that has been in place since Dec. 11 and entering a new executive order that allows larger crowds at sporting events, concert venues, amusement parks, restaurants, museums, aquariums, salons, tattoo parlors and retail facilities.

The easing of restrictions comes as North Carolina’s daily COVID case counts continue to trend downward. Hospitals are also treating fewer people battling severe illness from the coronavirus that has made 2020 feel like it has stretched months into the new year.

After a surge of new cases and subsequent hospitalizations related to Thanksgiving and the winter holidays, Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said the trends and metrics that she and her public health team have monitored throughout the pandemic are going in the right direction.

New daily case counts are back to the level they were in October. The hospitalization numbers — 1,530 on Wednesday — are back down to what they were in November, before the surges.

The positivity rate now hovers at 6 to 7 percent, only slightly above the 5 percent goal.

Fewer people are showing up in emergency departments with COVID-19 symptoms.

Cooper noted “significant and sustained improvement” in the state’s metrics as he outlined what would be included in his newest executive order, which goes into effect Friday.

“When it comes to easing some restrictions, we’re depending on people to be responsible,” Cooper said.

The mandatory mask mandate continues.

“As more people gather together, it will be more important than ever to social distance,” Cooper said. “These proven safety protocols are vital, as this virus is still here and infecting people every day.”

What’s in the order?

Some highlights from the order include:

  • Increasing the number of people who can gather together indoors to 25 from the previous 10-person cap while continuing with the 50-person limit outdoors;
  • A 30 percent indoor occupancy limit (or 250-person cap) for bars, conference spaces, lounges, night clubs, indoor amusement park areas, movie theaters, bingo parlors and gaming facilities, and most indoor and outdoor sporting venues;
  • Amending the alcohol sales curfew to allow on-site consumption at restaurants and bars until 11 p.m.;
  • Allowing indoor event venues with more than 5,000 seats, such as many college and professional sports arenas, an exception from the 250-person cap and a crowd size of up to 15 percent of their capacity if they follow additional safety measures; and
  • A 50 percent capacity limit at restaurants, breweries, wineries, distilleries, gyms, bowling alleys, swimming pools, rock climbing facilities, museums, aquariums, outdoor areas of amusement parks, salons, barbershops and tattoo parlors.

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