North Carolina's COVID-19 restrictions keeping some businesses with higher risks for spreading the virus closed and mass gatherings severely limited will remain in place for another five weeks, Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Wednesday.

Cooper's current executive order, which also mandates face coverings in public places statewide, expires on Friday. Now the restrictions will be extended until at least Sept. 11. A decision to maintain the status quo comes even as the governor and his top health official said case trends continue to stabilize, and even improve slightly in some areas, compared to a few weeks ago.

The new order means bars, gyms, movie theaters, and amusement parks — places where people are usually in closer contact — will now be closed for nearly six straight months. Gatherings are still limited to 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors, with some exceptions.

As many university campuses and K-12 public schools begin fall classes this month with some in-person instruction, Cooper said it's important to keep the same social distancing restrictions in place. Retaining the other restrictions will help counterbalance the higher risk associated with bringing together students, the governor said.

“There are key openings already occurring this month,” Cooper said at a media briefing, and with “the hustle and bustle of opening schools, people will move around more, and so will the virus.”

North Carolina's day-over-day increase in new coronavirus cases has been slowing, with about 1,125 more reported Wednesday to a total of over 129,000 during the pandemic, according to state health data. There have been 2,050 COVID-19 patient deaths. Like other states, test completions also have slowed.

Cooper last month told public schools that they could either hold in-person classes with social distancing restrictions and indoor face-mask mandates or conduct all remote learning when the year began Aug 17. Districts or charter schools that teach close to two-thirds of the state's 1.5 million public school students have decided to conduct learning online to start the year, according to recent Department of Public Instruction data.

UNC-Chapel Hill, the North Carolina university system's flagship campus, began welcoming students this week in advance of the first day of classes this Monday. The school will have a mix of in-person and online classes. The health director in Orange County, which includes Chapel Hill, wrote school Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz last week asking him to consider online instruction only for at least the first five weeks of the semester.

In a mass email late Wednesday, Guskiewicz said campus officials had made changes to reduce in-person classroom and on-campus residential capacity and that "we believe we are well prepared” for the semester.

Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said her agency has been working for months with higher education leaders to implement best practices for responding to COVID-19 on campus so that positive cases won't spiral out of control.

“These are not activities with no risk. There is risk. The virus is with us, it's in our communities," Cohen said.

While most people who contract the coronavirus recover after suffering only mild to moderate symptoms, it can be deadly for older patients and those with other health problems.

Cohen also said on Wednesday that her department had reviewed a health and safety plan that Republican National Convention officials sent this week for their meetings in Charlotte later this month and provided some feedback.

Party business meetings will be held Aug. 21-23 and President Donald Trump will be formally nominated there as the GOP candidate on Aug. 24.

The Republican National Committee had once scheduled a traditional convention in Charlotte, but the festivities were scaled back and moved to Jacksonville, Florida, when Trump and Cooper disagreed over social distancing restrictions, particularly for his nomination speech. Trump later canceled the Jacksonville events as COVID-19 cases surged in Florida.

Now only 336 delegates are expected in Charlotte to formally nominate the president.

The convention's plan will include daily temperature for delegates, face covering requirements, and on-site medical workers. Cohen said the plan contains some “very good core principles” but suggested other ideas to reduce risk.

For the most up-to-date information on coronavirus in North Carolina, visit our Live Updates blog here. WFDD wants to hear your stories — connect with us and let us know what you're experiencing.

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