North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday immediately ended the state's capacity limits on businesses and nearly all the remaining statewide mask-wearing mandates, returning the state to almost normal operations after 15 months marked by COVID-19 lockdowns and limits.
The Democratic governor of the nation's ninth-largest state announced the lifting of gathering limit requirements 2 1/2 weeks before June 1 — the date by which he had previously said he wanted to rid the state of social distancing requirements. Restrictions had been scaled back slowly in recent months.
Cooper said he was prompted to act by continued stable and improving statistical trends for the coronavirus, as well as Thursday's decision by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ease mask-wearing guidance indoors for people who are fully vaccinated. The number of daily confirmed cases and COVID-19-related hospitalizations continue to trend downward in North Carolina.
“This is a big step forward in living our lives the way they were before the pandemic. That's good,” Cooper said at a news conference. He warned that the virus remains in the state and urged all adults to get vaccinated.
Cooper's new directives repeal the order that required people to wear masks indoors. Also lifted are limits to mass gatherings, which had been at 100 people indoors and 200 outdoors. Restaurants — which had been limited to 75% capacity — and bars, reception spaces, and sports arenas capped at 50% capacity indoors and outdoors can now revert to full seating.
A mask mandate still remains in place within public schools, health care facilities, and on transportation like buses, trains, and in airports, according to Cooper's office. Friday's changes also don't prevent private businesses and entities, as well as local governments, from still requiring masks or limiting capacity if they choose.
Still, the changes open the doors for many companies and government agencies to bring most of their employees back to in-person work.
People who aren't vaccinated will still be urged to wear face coverings indoors around crowds and other areas where risks are higher. The state Department of Health and Human Services will still make social distancing and safety recommendations for all citizens.
The mask-mandate repeal in North Carolina hadn't been expected to happen until June or July, since Cooper had wanted to first get two-thirds of adults at least partially vaccinated. As of Friday, only 51% of the adult population had received at least one dose of a vaccination, and the number of weekly vaccinations has fallen precipitously recently.
Nearly 72,000 first-dose vaccinations were administered last week, an almost 80% decline compared to four weeks earlier. Government and private marketing efforts are looking at ways to incentivize people who aren't vaccinated to get a shot.
Cooper issued the first restrictions affecting commerce and schools in March 2020. A statewide mask mandate was issued last June.
North Carolina health officials have recorded over 989,000 positive cases since the pandemic began, according to state health department data. More than 12,860 people with confirmed cases have died. More than 900 people with the coronavirus are currently hospitalized — in contrast to a peak of about 4,000 in mid-January.