Gov. Roy Cooper announced Wednesday that the state of North Carolina will enter Phase 3 of reopening on Friday at 5 p.m.
"Today, we're cautiously encouraged about where we are in this pandemic. The key indicators we watch in North Carolina remain mostly stable," Cooper said. "But I have to tell you that we see warning signs that the disease could spike again, here and across the country."
Phase 3 is expected to last at least 3 weeks. Gov. Cooper said this duration was made shorter intentionally since COVID-19 cases are already rising again across the country, we are entering flu season, and health officials need the ability to react if cases spike here.
Chapter one: Here's what will change in Phase 3
Large outdoor venues with seating greater than 10,000 may operate with 7% occupancy for spectators.
- Smaller outdoor entertainment venues, like arenas or amphitheaters, may operate outdoors at 30% of outdoor capacity, or 100 guests, whichever is less.
- Movie theaters and conference centers may open indoor spaces to 30% of capacity, or 100 guests, whichever is less.
- Bars may operate outdoors at 30% of outdoor capacity, or 100 guests, whichever is less.
- Amusement parks may open at 30% occupancy, outdoor attractions only.
- The limits on mass gatherings will remain at 25 people indoors and 50 people outdoors.
- The 11 pm curfew on alcohol sales for in-person consumption in locations such as restaurants and outdoor bars will be extended to October 23.
"Every careful step we make forward, and every time we wear a mask and keep our distance, we are helping to keep this disease at bay, and building a stronger North Carolina," Cooper said.
Gov. Cooper said the face mask mandate for the state is still in effect during Phase 3.
"A face covering is mandatory for everybody over the age of 5. As the head of the CDC said, a mask is the best tool we have against this virus," Gov. Cooper said.
In September, Phase 2.5 allowed gyms, museums and playgrounds to reopen at reduced capacity and increased the number of people allowed at mass gatherings.
Chapter two: What went into the decision to advance to Phase 3
Gov. Cooper said there is optimism with North Carolina's COVID-19 numbers but also "warning signs" that the tide could turn.
Vanessa Ruffes | Charlotte, N.C.
Health officials report three out of the state's four key coronavirus metrics are level right now. The one metric that has started increasing most recently is emergency room reports of COVID-like symptoms.
This is regarded as an early warning metric and will be closely watched over the next few weeks.
According to NCDHHS Sec. Mandy Cohen, the state's positive test rate has been hovering around the goal line of 5%, but the past two days have been above-average. She sees this as a reminder that stability is fragile, which is why North Carolina has been slowly phasing into reopening.
"You see with every venue we are reopening, there are capacity restrictions, masking restrictions, social distancing requirements. I think it is a thoughtful step forward," Cohen said.
State leaders are pointing to science and data as the primary factors in reopening decisions, keeping in mind that outdoor activities with fewer people, more social distancing, and masks are generally regarded as safer.
For example, Gov. Cooper said the decision to allow large outdoor venues to bring back seven percent capacity came from a Carolina Panthers proposal, which the governor believes showed ample space for fans to spread out.
"One of the plans they presented was around that figure, and it looked good and looked safe for everyone," said Cooper. "That was determined to be a good number for that size arena."
The duration of Cooper's new executive order is also intentionally short compared to others he has issued previously, expiring three weeks after it takes effect.
"We know we're getting into cooler weather, and Dr. Cohen has expressed her concern with increased virus spread. We are seeing some increases across the country, and we want to make sure that we keep this window short enough so we can react," Cooper said.
Health officials have previously said that cooler weather tends to drive people indoors, where the virus spreads more easily.
Flu season is also about to start, which can increase hospitalizations and potentially create what has been called a "twindemic" — the double impact of coronavirus and prevalent flu over the next several months
Chapter three: Some business owners feel excluded
Not all business owners are happy with the news. Venues that don't have outdoor space are still out of luck within the structure of Phase 3.
Brandon Goldner | Charlotte, N.C
NoDa music venue The Evening Muse will still be closed during Phase 3 because it doesn't have outdoor space.
The venue's founder, Joe Kuhlmann, is now hoping Charlotte's City Council will approve an economic development package Monday, which would help local music venues.
He also hopes the General Assembly in Raleigh will appropriate money to help struggling venues.
"It's time for city council to show up," he said. "It's time for the state legislature to show up and help us out on this because we have to remain closed."
Kim Kusiak runs two The Little Gym franchises on Providence Road and Ballantyne.
While her Providence Road location remains open, she permanently closed her Ballantyne location this summer because parents are nervous to have their children be in small groups and indoor occupancy limits restrict the number of families she can have at one time
."I hope that Governor Cooper can see the small businesses for what they are," she said. "Give us an opportunity to show that. Give us a chance to show that we're being safe."
Chapter four: Some businesses prepare to reopen, but with strong restrictions
Eased pandemic restrictions are on the way for North Carolina. Starting Friday, bars and movie theaters will be able to open their doors but at limited capacity.
Lexi Wilson | Charlotte, N.C.
North Carolina bars like Jeff's Bucket Shop have been closed for months.
"My husband should not be driving Uber to pay our bills," Co-Owner of Jeff's Bucket Shop Michaele Laria said.
Laria doesn't just miss the business, she misses the long karaoke nights, the regulars, and stories shared over a drink.
"This is where people come for therapy, they need it, they need it," Laria said. "There's a sense of community here."
Under Phase 3, bars can open outdoors but only at 30% capacity.
Jeff's Bucket shop has a small patio, but that space won't do much.
"We can get 10 people, that's not fair," Laria said.
Meanwhile, the historic Gem Theatre in Kannapolis is getting ready to re-open.
"We're very excited to get back to business," owner Steve Morris said.
The theater usually seats 900, but under Cooper's order, it will have to seat 100 guests.
"We will open October the 9th, get things back in order, get our drink machines cranked back up, and also we have lined up our content to get our movies," Morris said.
But as the new phase comes, bars are barely hanging on.
Business owners getting ready to take to the streets Thursday in uptown Charlotte to protest Cooper's restrictions on bars.
"Treat us equal," Laria said. "Stop treating us like we're the stepchildren that you don't care about."