Grocery stores are taking preventative measures, both voluntary and required, during the coronavirus pandemic. Here a Walmart employee wears a mask. Photo courtesy of Walmart

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Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Wednesday the easing of some COVID-19 restrictions, including the outdoor mask mandate, beginning Friday. The governor’s executive order also increases mass gathering capacities from 50 to 100 for indoor gatherings and from 100 to 200 for outdoor gatherings. 

The order comes just a day after the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance on Tuesday, advising vaccinated individuals that it is now considered low risk to forgo masking while outdoors, as long as they are not in a large crowd. 

Under the new order, indoor masking and social distancing requirements will remain in effect until June 1, when Cooper said he intends to remove social distancing requirements. He hopes to end the indoor masking mandate once two-thirds of adults in the state are at least partially vaccinated. 

Some businesses have been flaunting these rules already and, since enforcement has generally been left up to local police departments, enforcement has not been uniform

As of Wednesday, 48.7% of adults in the state have received at least one dose of vaccine, according to state Department of Health and Human Services estimates. The 66% target may take some time to reach, though, as vaccination rates level off. Only 125,000 first doses were administered last week, the second-fewest administered in a week since January. 

DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen acknowledged the slowdown.

“We have noticed there has been a slowing of folks coming in for the vaccine,” she said.

The state is shifting from a focus on large, mass-vaccination clinics to a more local approach to stress convenience and to win over those who have not yet chosen to be vaccinated, she said.

Cooper stressed that he plans to end all gathering restrictions and social distancing requirements with a new executive order on June 1, regardless of vaccination numbers. 

“It would be great if we had two-thirds vaccinated by then (June 1), but we probably won’t,” Cooper said.

Cohen also said reaching 66% of adults vaccinated will not lead to an eradication of the virus, but it will allow for a general return to normalcy. 

“We believe at that level we will have enough protection in our community to hold this virus at bay to allow us to live with it,” Cohen said.

“We know that is not a herd immunity level … but we believe that is enough protection in our community that we can live with this virus, and we can lift things like the indoor mask mandate and put this pandemic in our rearview mirror.”

Christian Green

Christian Green is the lead Carolina Public Press contributing writer reporting on healthcare and health policy in North Carolina. He obtained a master’s degree in neuroscience at Wake Forest University’s Graduate School for the Arts and Sciences, where he worked in the Laboratory for Complex Brain Networks. He is based in Raleigh. Contact him at cgreen@carolinapublicpress.org.