Bars and other entertainment venues will be able to reopen at limited outdoor capacity as the state moves to Phase 3 of eased pandemic restrictions, Gov. Roy Cooper said Wednesday.
It will go into effect Friday at 5 p.m. and will remain in place through Oct. 23 at 5 p.m. Phase 2.5, which began Sept. 4, was set to expire Friday.
The change offers some relief to businesses that have said they have been treated unfairly.
Movie theaters, entertainment spaces and amusement parks can also reopen under the order.
Cooper said officials are cautiously encouraged by COVID-19 metrics, but there are warning signs for both North Carolina and the rest of the country.
“Our stability is fragile,” he said at a news conference Wednesday. “I believe that North Carolina can do this safely. But so I am clear, every gathering carries the risk of spreading this disease. Being safe means being smart and making sure others around you are doing the same.”
Here is a look at some of the new guidelines under Phase 3:
▪ Movie theater and conference occupancy is set at 30% capacity, or 100 people, whichever is less. In movie theaters, the capacity limit applies to each screen.
▪ Bars can open outdoors only at 30% of outdoor capacity, or 100 guests, whichever is less. Bars that don’t have outdoor seating can open outdoor spaces to no more than seven people for every 1,000 square feet of outdoor area. The 11 p.m. alcohol curfew for on-site consumption stays in place.
▪ Outdoor amusement parks may open at 30% capacity. Indoor amusement park rides must remain closed.
▪ Large outdoor venues with more than 10,000 can open at 7% capacity.
▪ Smaller outdoor entertainment venues may operate outdoors at 30% of outdoor capacity or 100 guests, whichever is less.
▪ Mass gathering limits remain at 25 for indoors and 50 for outdoors. Fitness facilities, restaurants, personal care businesses (barbershops and hair salons) and museums continue to have the same capacity limits outlined under Phase 2.5, which took effect Sept. 4.
Cooper cautioned people who are at high risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms, such as people 65 and older and those with underlying health conditions.
“Our at-risk population is still safer at home,” he said.
The requirement for masks in public places where social distancing is difficult remains “until we have a vaccine or a cure to this virus,” Cooper said.
The three Ws of wearing a mask, waiting six feet apart from others and washing hands is a “tried and true” way to slow the spread, said Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, at Wednesday’s4 news conference.
Cohen said the new Phase 3 is a “thoughtful step forward” that reflects balancing progress with preventing viral spread. Cohen said the risk of spreading coronavirus is greater indoors than outdoors and when a lot of people have gathered together.
“We are taking cautious steps forward in this next phase,” Cohen said. “I think it’s why you see, with every venue that we’re opening, that there are both capacity restrictions, masking restrictions, social distancing requirements.”
After parents of college football players petitioned to be allowed to attend their sons’ home games, Cooper said last week that venues with at least 10,000 seats could open to patrons at 7% capacity, effective Friday.
Asked about why capacity is set at 7%, Cooper said that it’s important for people to keep their social distance. In a large stadium, 7% capacity could still mean 3,000 to 4,000 people at the venue, Cooper said.
“If they all go together in one place, then that could be a significant problem,” he said.
Cooper said 7% is enough room to keep people safe and socially distanced, along with other safety protocols.
“I know the (Carolina) Panthers and the Department of Health and Human Services have worked a lot on this, and I think one of the plans that they presented was around that figure and it looked good and it looks safe for everyone,” Cooper said.
The governor said they are trying to make sure they’re using “this dimmer switch approach in order to gradually get things back, but also protecting from the spread of the virus.”
The new executive order means bars that have been closed since mid-March will now be able to reopen. But they’ll need to have the ability to open with outdoor capacity, and 2 a.m. last calls are still out, as the alcohol curfew remains at 11 p.m.
For the first four months of the pandemic, Foundation, the decade-old bar in downtown Raleigh, made repairs and upgrades, the kind of work you sometimes don’t get to when you’re open seven days a week.
“Then we were essentially broke,” co-owner Will Alphin said Wednesday. “So we started doing these cocktail mixes to-go. Which has been a fun project, but hasn’t made any money.”
Alphin said they were hoping to be open, at least for outdoor service, by September, giving Foundation a couple months before the weather drove everyone back indoors. That didn’t happen. Now Alphin isn’t sure how Phase 3 will affect business.
“If we had September and October, that would have been useful for us,” Alphin said. “With just October, I’m not sure it will be enough.”
In Durham, Kotuku Surf Club has a large outdoor section. Owner Rhys Botica put in a liquor order and planned to hold a staff meeting Thursday to consider when the bar might reopen, considering Monday would give them more time to ease into reopening.
But for Botica, and other bars that have been closed since March, Phase 3 may move the needle, but also arrives too late.
“After seven months of losing money, the chance to lose not quite so much money is exciting, Botica said.
Botica said he’s generally supportive of the restrictions North Carolina has taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus, even though it has pushed his bars to the brink. Surf Club’s outdoor space offers an advantage, but another bar Botica has downtown, the craft beer and whiskey-centric Criterion, only has space outside for a half-dozen patrons.
“It’s a small space,” Botica said. “I’m not sure what the future holds for Criterion.”
Phase 3 and the reopening of North Carolina bars falls on a weekend with expected temperatures in the 40s, Botica points out.
“We’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting,” Botica said. “It’s death by a thousand cuts.”
The North Carolina Bar and Tavern Association called Phase 3 “an unworkable path” and “pointless,” according to a news release. Zack Medford, president of the association, said most bars can’t afford to reopen under the order and many don’t have outdoor seating.
“This is a slap in the face,” Medford said.
He said bars should be allowed to open indoors at 50%, which is the same capacity as restaurants that serve alcohol.
“Bars and taverns across North Carolina have been closed for 196 days — half a year,” Medford said. “Bars are ready to open safely, and we know how to do it. We just need a real chance.”
Trends for new daily COVID-19 cases have been largely stable for most of September, though COVID-19 hospitalizations and the percentage of positive coronavirus tests have moved higher in the last two days.
Fewer people are going to hospital emergency departments with symptoms of COVID-19 now than the peak in late July and early August. But people going to hospitals with fevers and breathing problems remains much higher now than in previous years.
Cohen said there is spread among extended families, and she urged people to wear masks whenever they are around anyone outside their immediate household. Cohen said people let down their guard around extended family and close friends, which could increase the spread of the virus.
“Other places we continue to watch are in congregate living settings,” said Cohen, including nursing homes, homeless shelters, farmworker living area and detention facilities.
Cohen signed an order Monday allowing indoor visitation at long-term care facilities, which includes nursing homes, skilled nursing facilities, adult care homes and other congregate facilities. But the order only applies to facilities that have not had COVID-19 cases in the previous 14 days and those in counties where the percentage of positive coronavirus tests is less than 10%.
Cooper has been gradually easing restrictions on business and leisure activity since his Stay At Home order in late March. Restaurant dining rooms, barbershops, salons, museums, gyms and other businesses have been allowed to open at limited capacity.
Two weeks ago, Cooper announced that elementary schools could open next week to daily in-person instruction, if local school boards choose to. Initially, he allowed in-person instruction if schools limited students on campus and on buses. Most of the state’s public school students started the year with online instruction, though some have had limited in-person instruction.
After starting the school year with remote learning, elementary school students in Wake, the state’s largest school district, will begin returning to classrooms on Oct. 26, The News & Observer reported. Middle school students will begin going back to classrooms on Nov. 16, while high school students will continue with all-online learning through the fall semester, which ends in January.
Cooper’s executive order for Phase 2.5 reopened playgrounds. Museums and aquariums were allowed to reopen Sept. 4 at 50% capacity, and gyms at 30% capacity.
Cooper said the best way to revitalize businesses is to slow the spread of the virus.
“Most of North Carolina is open, and a lot of businesses don’t have enough customers because people don’t feel safe enough to patronize them,” he said.
“Deal with the pandemic,” he said. “It’s out there. It’s making people sick and it’s killing people. We have to step up and do what we need to do to slow the spread.”
Cooper, a Democrat, has been criticized by Republicans, who have wanted him to lift restrictions faster.
Cooper said the new executive order for Phase 3 lasts until Oct. 23 because North Carolina is moving into cooler weather, and that they will reassess the data again at the end of the three weeks.
“We’re seeing some increases across the country, and we want to make sure that we keep this window short enough so that we can react, and we hope to make some decisions,” Cooper said. “I hope we can keep our numbers down and stable and that we can continue to move forward. But we have to do this very cautiously.”
Cooper is running for re-election against Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who said he would lift the statewide mask mandate.