By Kate Martin, originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.
Starting Friday, masks are required attire in public when it is impossible to be physically distant from others, Gov. Roy Cooper said Wednesday.
Cooper issued an executive order on the masks, also extending the current level of restrictions, called Phase 2, through July 17. Phase 2 restricts the number of people who can gather together, be in a business and forbids the operation of bars and gyms.
Some businesses had announced plans to reopen under Phase 3 as early as this weekend, but those plans will now be put on hold. Last week, Cooper had warned that he was still deciding on the appropriate policy in light of the recent increase of COVID-19 cases in North Carolina.
“Hospital capacity can be overwhelmed in the blink of an eye,” Cooper said Wednesday. “Once we see that capacity is gone, it can be too late to turn the tide.”
Cases of the new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, continue to rise statewide, including several days of record-breaking hospitalizations for COVID-19.
In addition, Dr. Mandy Cohen, N.C. secretary of health and human services, said laboratories that test for COVID-19 are seeing shortages of lab supplies, such as reagents.
“This is a concern,” Cohen said. “If left unchecked, the virus will continue to spread. Face coverings only fully work if we all do it.”
On the bright side, Cohen said more than 1,500 full-time and part-time staff members are working on contact tracing across the state. These workers talk with those who have tested positive for COVID-19 and try to figure out how they became infected, and they seek to notify those who might have been in contact with the infected person.
Infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci testified to the U.S. Congress on Tuesday that COVID-19 will not simply disappear. Cooper quoted Fauci as he implored North Carolinians to take the mask mandate seriously.
“Testifying before Congress yesterday, Dr. Anthony Fauci said North Carolina could see an ‘insidious increase in community spread, which will be much more difficult to contain as the community spread amplifies itself,’” Cooper said. “(Fauci) also testified that the next couple of weeks are critical for our country in our fight against COVID-19.”
As of Wednesday morning, 906 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 in hospitals throughout North Carolina — up from 587 just one month ago.
Specific requirements for masks
According to Cooper’s executive order signed Wednesday, face coverings are required anywhere someone cannot be physically distant from people outside of their household, whether indoors or out. The masks apply to anyone age 11 or older.
Exceptions include if a person is actively eating or drinking, exercising strenuously or has a medical or behavioral condition that prevents the wearing of masks.
“Under this executive order, all North Carolinians will be on the honor system about whether … there is a reason why they cannot wear a face covering,” the executive order states. “Everyone in this state is asked to tell the truth and — if they are healthy and able to wear a mask — to wear a face covering so that they do not put other people at risk of serious illness and death.”
Enforcement of mask wearing is up to the businesses, and if they allow patrons to go without masks, they can be cited by local law enforcement, Cooper said. Businesses can also refuse to allow people without masks into their establishments. If people persist, then businesses can call law enforcement to remove patrons for trespassing, Cooper said.
Dennis Taylor, president of the N.C. Nurses Association, said his organization supports the mask mandate.
“Nurses know these strategies will slow the spread of the virus,” Taylor said. “It’s not political. It’s not an exaggeration. Even if you are in the low-risk category — especially if you are in the low-risk category — everyone please, heed our warning.”
Playgrounds, gyms, bars, museums and the like will remain closed as Phase 2 is extended by the executive order. Cooper said officials will continue to keep an eye on infection data.