CHARLOTTE, N.C. — North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and members of the state's COVID-19 task force announced new guidelines following new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Thursday.
Effective immediately on Friday, Gov. Cooper lifted most mandatory mask requirements along with most social distancing and indoor capacity limits via executive order.
The CDC announced it's eased the indoor mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people, allowing them to stop wearing masks outdoors in crowds and inside in most situations.
The new federal guidance still calls for wearing masks in crowded indoor settings like buses, planes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters, but will help clear the way for reopening workplaces, schools, and other venues — even removing the need for masks or social distancing for those who are fully vaccinated.
Sports venues like Truist Field, home of the Charlotte Knights, welcomed the strikeout on capacity limits.
"It kind of brings it back to before, like what it used to be," said Knights fan Diego Fuentes.
He walked into the ballpark with a mask on, but after hearing the news and knowing he was vaccinated, he took his off.
"You actually get to see people smile now and see what they're saying," Fuentes added.
What's new for North Carolina
Cooper spoke at 1:30 p.m. Friday to announce changes to his COVID-19 executive orders. He briefly updated the numbers at the beginning of the briefing before urging citizens to get vaccinated to ensure those who may live with compromised immune systems are kept safe as well. He entered the briefing room without a mask.
The new state-level guidelines are identical to those at the federal level, with restrictions still in place for areas like prisons and hospitals. NC DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen also said public transportation, homeless shelters, and other healthcare settings required masks, along with daycares and camps. Otherwise, most social distancing requirements and capacity limits were lifted effective immediately.
"People who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear a mask or practice social distancing," Cohen said, "although they may still choose to do so."
Cohen said masks are still recommended for all people at crowded, larger indoor events. Recommendations for businesses are also still published, and businesses will be able to choose if they will require employees and customers to mask up inside.
Cooper noted cities and local governments will still be allowed to set their own mask requirements but noted most local governments have been in line with state requirements. When asked about vaccine passports to ensure people are vaccinated, Cooper acknowledged people are free to use verification of their vaccination as they please, but did not say if North Carolina would try to implement a passport-style system. However, Cohen took the mic to affirm the state was looking at incentivizing vaccinations for everyone aged 12 and up. She also noted employers were offering incentives for employees and customers to get the shots.
Cooper previously hoped to get two-thirds of all adults partially vaccinated before lifting the mandates but said the CDC's new guidance helped accelerate that timeline.
“We can take this step today because the science shows our focus on getting people vaccinated is working,” he said. “But to keep moving forward – and to make sure that we keep saving lives – more people need to get vaccinated.”
Cooper noted there likely will be people who are unvaccinated that will ditch their masks. The executive order lifting the mandates, he said, is trying to send a message to those who don't yet have the shot: it's time to get vaccinated. Even then, Cooper and Cohen still had the two-thirds vaccination rate as a goal and were hopeful people would still get vaccinated.
Cohen said while more students across the state can get vaccinated, she said it will take time for them to get the shots. the recommendation about masks in schools still stands: vaccinated students can take off the masks, but kids who don't have the shots should stay masked. She noted how it was only recently the Pfizer two-shot vaccine was approved for everyone ages 12 and up, and that vaccines for kids younger than that are not yet available.
Cooper also said with the new guidelines and lifting of the mandate he would drop the mask when allowed and would mask up as needed in certain environments on visits. Cohen said while she doesn't have to wear a mask, she will still wear one in certain settings with her two children, aged 6 and 9, since the CDC still recommends kids wear masks and since there is still no vaccine approved for younger children.
Prior to Friday's briefing, Gov. Cooper's office told WCNC Charlotte Thursday that the current indoor mask mandate is still in effect.
The CDC announcement today on masks shows the important benefits of vaccinations. North Carolina two weeks ago removed the outdoor mask mandate, but the indoor mask mandate remains in effect while state health officials review the specific CDC recommendations.
Closing out the briefing, Cooper said the pandemic isn't over and urged people to get vaccinated and to help encourage people still not vaccinated to at least have a conversation with their doctors.
Cooper had already lifted the outdoor face coverings mandate back in April saying people would not have to wear a mask in certain outdoor situations. However, masks would still be recommended outdoors in crowded settings when social distancing is difficult.
"The pandemic is not over," Cooper reminded everyone back in April.
"For our unvaccinated population, children or adults, we continue to recommend wearing masks," Dr. Cohen added.
The day before: Mecklenburg County leaders see the shift
During a county-level briefing on Thursday, Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris said she wouldn't be surprised if North Carolina modified its rules to align with the CDC's latest guidance.
Harris approved and welcomed the CDC's new guidance, calling it "great news." However, she pleaded with everyone to be honest and responsible.
"If you like the idea of not having to wear a mask indoors as well as outdoors, please take full advantage of these clinics this weekend and get yourself vaccinated," Harris said. "There are multiple clinics available to you, the vaccine is readily available to you, and different vaccines are available to you."
She hopes those who are not vaccinated will continue to wear a mask as the CDC advises, but she knows it will be hard to enforce.
"You cannot tell by looking at someone if they've been vaccinated or not," she added.
Business leaders react
Minutes after Cooper's briefing concluded, Charlotte Motor Speedway announced the lifting of restrictions would impact their ability to host more race fans for both the NHRA Four-Wide drag races during the weekend of May 15 along with the upcoming Coca-Cola 600 Memorial Day weekend races. Specifically, the speedway can now operate at full capacity for the upcoming events. They anticipated a higher call volume for fans seeking to buy tickets and asked anyone seeking to attend to buy online.
“We are thrilled with today’s news that will allow fans to return to America’s Home for Racing without limitation,” Greg Walter, executive vice president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway, said. “From the outset of the pandemic, whether operating a drive-through testing clinic or hosting the state’s first mass vaccination event, this has been the ultimate goal – to get back to filling the grandstands for the biggest, most entertaining events in motorsports.”
The news also coming as a relief to our area’s bar and restaurant owners. At Haberdish restaurant in Charlotte’s NoDa neighborhood, the state-mandated capacity sign was pulled off the front door, Friday.
“It’s really exciting, we’ve worked really hard to get to this point,” said owner, Jeff Tonidandel, who also owns Crepe Cellar, Supperland, Reigning Doughnuts, and Growlers Pourhouse.
He said he and his staff discussed the changes and ultimately decided that masks are no longer required for vaccinated customers or staff.
“Most of our staff are all fully vaccinated,” Tonidandel, who said just one or two -- who are still waiting to receive their second dose -- will continue to wear one.
The governor's announcement, which came late Friday afternoon, left little time for bar and restaurant owners to prepare. Tonidandel says he’s currently working to get more food ordered, with more customers now allowed inside.
Also on his to-do list, add more tables and shift current floorplans around, add more reservations to their system and hire more staff.
At Bishop’s Haircuts in Charlotte’s south end, where clients and stylists are in close proximity, masks will still be required, at least for now.
“We’re going to wait it out,” said Assistant Manager, Nicolas Cash, “I think we’re going to keep the mask on and like I said I’m not going to ask them for their vaccination card so just kind of wait it out and see what happens.”
WCNC Charlotte is reaching out to business leaders, sports teams, and other key players across the Charlotte area to gauge their reactions to the lifting of the mask mandates and social distancing guidelines.
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