Gov. Roy Cooper speaks about his pandemic policies during a press conference on May 14, 2021.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced Friday that he would be ending all of North Carolina’s capacity limits and social distancing requirements as well as masking mandates in most circumstances “effective immediately.”

The new executive order comes one day after the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance that vaccinated individuals no longer needed to wear masks or physically distance in most situations since studies show vaccinated people are not only protected from the virus themselves, but they appear very unlikely to spread the virus to others.  

Cooper had already stated that he planned to lift all social distancing and capacity restrictions by June 1 but previously stated that he would not lift the indoor mask mandate until at least two-thirds of adults in the state had received at least one dose of vaccination. Currently, around 40% of North Carolina’s total population, or 51% of North Carolina’s adult population, is vaccinated, but the number of new vaccinations has decreased every week over the past month. At the state’s current rate of vaccination, it would likely not have reached that goal until at least mid-July. 

Indoor mask mandates will remain in place in certain settings such as public transportation, child care, schools, prisons, nursing homes, homeless shelters and in public health settings like hospitals and doctors’ offices. 

Local governments and private businesses will also be able to require masking. Cooper said he expected local governments to follow the state’s guidance as they have throughout the pandemic. Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Mandy Cohen said that she knew at least some businesses, such as Starbucks and The Home Depot, plan to continue asking both customers and employees to mask while indoors for now. 

While some welcomed the announcement that vaccinated individuals no longer needed to mask indoors, others are concerned that it opens the possibility that unvaccinated individuals will be more likely to ditch their masks as well. 

“Yes, you are likely to see a number of people who are unvaccinated stop wearing masks,” said Cooper. “A lot of what we have done has relied on the personal responsibility of people and of businesses. Today, this order increases that personal responsibility.” 

DHHS recommends that businesses choosing not to require masks post signage in their stores reminding unvaccinated individuals that they should continue to wear masks.

As for children who have not yet received a vaccine or who remain ineligible, Cohen said that they will still need to remain masked in public indoor settings. 

Though the 66% of adults vaccinated benchmark is no longer needed to lift masking mandates, both Cooper and Cohen said that their main focus was to continue urging people to get vaccinated.

There may be an increase in total population vaccinated due to the recent approval of an Emergency Use Authorization for children ages 12-15 to begin receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

“This is not the end of this pandemic. We have a lot more people who need to get vaccinated before we get to the end of this,” Cooper said.

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.