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Cooper moves NC into Phase 2.5, allowing more businesses to reopen but expanding mask mandate :: WRAL.com

Raleigh, N.C. — More businesses will be allowed to reopen on Friday, but younger children will be required to wear masks in public as North Carolina moves into the next stage of its coronavirus pandemic recovery effort, Gov. Roy Cooper said Tuesday.

After more than three months in Phase 2 of his three-part plan to reopen businesses and resume social activities during the pandemic, Cooper said he will move the state to Phase 2.5 at 5 p.m. Friday.

“Our pause in Phase 2 was necessary,” Cooper said at a news conference, noting that trends in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations have largely stabilized in recent weeks. “Moving to Phase 2.5 means that we can safely do a few more things while still fighting the virus as vigorously as ever.”

The shift to Phase 2.5 involves the following changes:

Outdoor playgrounds can reopen. Indoor playgrounds can operate at 30 percent capacity, or up to seven people per 1,000 square feet.
Museums and aquariums can operate at 50 percent capacity, or up to 12 people per 1,000 square feet.
Gyms, bowling alleys, skating rinks and other indoor exercise facilities can operate at 30 percent capacity, or up to seven people per 1,000 square feet.
Mass gathering limits will be raised from 10 to 25 people indoors and from 25 to 50 people outside.
Masks will be required in public for anyone age 5 and older, instead of 11 and older.

Outdoor visitations at nursing homes also can resume Friday under a separate order issued by Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services. The facilities must meet several requirements, including not having a current viral outbreak, having a testing plan and infection control plan for the virus in place and having adequate personal protective equipment.

“We know that this separation has been so hard for families,” Cooper said of relaxing rules of nursing home visits while still protecting residents and staff.

Cohen said outdoor visits are already allowed at other long-term care facilities, but nursing homes have the most “medically frail” residents. So, health officials had to strike a balance between protecting them and allowing family visits to boost their mental and emotional health.

Phase 2.5 doesn’t include bars, amusement parks and movie theaters, however, all of which remain closed until at least Oct. 2.

“Stability isn’t victory,” the governor said to explain why a full-scale reopening under Phase 3 won’t take effect for weeks. “The forest isn’t as thick, but we’re not out of the woods.”

Zack Medford, who owns four bars in Raleigh, is frustrated that bars have been once again left behind in the state’s recovery plan. They were initially supposed to reopen in Phase 2, but Cooper dropped them out before moving into Phase 2.

“You can only go for so long without making revenue, and the rent keeps still being due and your bills still keep coming in the mail without any money to pay them,” Medford said. “You’re out of options.”

Medford said has tried everything, from spearheading a legal challenge to the shutdown order to personally writing to Cooper.

“We’ve asked for creative solutions to at least help us survive a little bit till a cure can be found to the coronavirus, but we’ve gotten nowhere, and we haven’t heard anything back,” he said. “It’s like they don’t realize we even exist.

Many bars soon won’t exist if the shutdown continues, he said.

“There’s empty storefronts all over North Carolina where bars have just given up and run out of money,” he said.

Even ahead of Phase 2.5, several fitness center chains opened on Tuesday, using an exception under a previous executive order that allowed them to serve people who needed to exercise for health reasons. That exception will be eliminated Friday under the new order, and those gyms will have to follow the new rules for limited capacity, social distancing and cleaning protocols.

“As I walked in, I told one of the people here that it feels like Christmas,” John Ballew said after visiting a Planet Fitness in Durham. “My first thought was [it’s] a lot less crowded than the grocery store.”

“I like how they have more spray bottles and everything. I constantly see them cleaning, so that pretty good to me,” Planet Fitness member Jessica Martinez said.

Gym customers have to wear masks, but not when they are “strenuously exercising,” according to Cooper’s order.

“Just because we’re easing restrictions on gyms does not mean that’s the right choice for everyone,” Cohen said, noting gyms are under such strict capacity rules because people working out pose a greater risk of spreading the virus to others. “I want to remind folks to think about their own personal health risk or their family’s health risk.”

Bowling alleys also challenged Cooper’s shutdown order, and the case was before the North Carolina Supreme Court a few hours before Cooper announced that they could reopen under Phase 2.5. A ruling in the case isn’t expected for months.

Barry Van Derman, president and chief executive of the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, said science and children’s museums statewide have been working together to safety reopen, taking steps such as spacing out inside exhibits.

“We’re ready to reopen . We’ve been planning for a long time now,” Van Derman said. “The association of Children’s Museums estimates as many as 30 percent of museums nationally could close from COVID-19 [fallout].”

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