North Carolina plans to take another small step toward a full reopening by allowing large outdoor venues to expand their attendance capacity on Oct. 2.
Gov. Roy Cooper and state Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen announced Tuesday that large outdoor entertainment venues — those that can seat at least 10,000 — would be permitted to open at 7% capacity with key safety precautions in place.
The limited attendance would affect professional and collegiate football stadiums, and auto-racing venues such as Charlotte Motor Speedway and Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, which seats 17,000.
Cooper said his administration is providing a heads-up on the potential Oct. 2 expiration of his Phase 2.5 order so venues can begin to print tickets and prepare for increased attendance within social distancing guidelines.
However, Cooper said he was not prepared to commit to additional reopening beyond the restrictions that went into effect Sept. 4.
That includes outdoor gatherings, such as parks, that do not have fixed seating, as well as indoors venues, such as bars, nightclubs and movie theaters.
Bowman Gray Stadium can hold 17,000 fans, so a 7% capacity would be 1,190 fans.
However, Bowman Gray promoter Gray Garrison said in response to Cooper's decision that it's too late to have any races this season. Winston-Salem Speedway Inc. rents the stadium from the city of Winston-Salem for its weekly summer racing series.
"We have no plans to do anything at this point," Garrison said. "We are committed to next season and making next season bigger and better."
Garrison said racing will likely begin, like always, in mid-to-late April.
"We didn't have a season," Garrison said about what would have been the 72nd season. "It was a shame for everybody involved with our weekly series, but really the focus has already turned to 2021."
Cooper said his administration plans to make additional Phase 3 reopening announcements early next week.
"Because of our continued (COVID-19) stability, we are prepared to take another step forward toward Phase 3 if our progress holds," Cooper said. "We hope to ease some other restrictions while keeping in place safety protocols.
'Progress is fragile'
The decision on large outdoor venues comes after Cooper agreed last week to allow parents of football players at UNC Chapel Hill, N.C. State University and other state universities to attend games.
Cooper cautioned the outdoor attendance expansion is dependent on the state continuing to either remain stable or make additional progress on the five key metrics evaluated by his administration.
The administration is monitoring five public-health data points: number of hospitalizations; number of hospital beds, ICU beds and ventilators available; number of positive cases; percentage of positive cases; and number of individuals coming to hospital emergency rooms with COVID-19 symptoms.
Cooper said he wants the levels, particularly the number of new cases, "to be even lower" before entering Phase 3 reopening.
"We need to double down and be committed more than ever to what works — wearing a mask, waiting six feet apart from others and washing hands often," Cooper said.
Cohen said DHHS continues to monitor COVID-19 metrics over 14 to 21 days for determining any new trends.
COVID-19 tests have produced around a 5% positive test rate in recent weeks — the level that Cohen said was pivotal toward advancing the state's reopening steps.
The percentage of N.C. tests returning positive results was at 5.4% out of 22,476 tests as of Sunday, the latest day available.
However, there have been 157 COVID-19 related deaths since Sept. 15 for an overall total of 3,286 since mid-March.
The total number of cases since mid-March is at 195,549, including 1,168 cases reported Tuesday.
Cohen cautioned again Tuesday it remains too early to determine whether additional public activity — including Labor Day holiday events, the reopening of gyms and museums at limited indoor capacity or President Donald Trump's campaign rallies in Winston-Salem and Fayetteville — have produced an uptick in new cases.
“Our progress is fragile and will take our continued hard to work to protect it," Cohen said.
Cohen said she is not aware of any specific outbreak related to the partial reopening of gyms and fitness centers, " but again, it's still pretty early."
$40 million earmarked for small businesses
On Tuesday, Cooper also announced a $40 million relief program for businesses to help offset fixed costs, such as rent, mortgage interests and utility bills. The funding comes from the federal CARES Act relief package.
“Small businesses are the backbone of our economy — powering our local communities and giving back in so many ways," Cooper said. "They deserve our support, and this new initiative can help them weather this tough time."
The N.C. Mortgage, Utility and Rent Relief, administered by the state Commerce Department, can provide up to $20,000 per qualifying business location.
Business applicants from certain industry sectors that have not been able to operate during the COVID-19 period may apply for up to two of their business locations.
Commerce is expected to open the application process next week. It will be handled on a first-come, first-served basis. Applicants can apply for up to four months of mortgage interest or rent expenses as well as utility expenses.
“It is imperative for struggling businesses to have access to relief funds,” said Mark Owens, president and chief executive of Greater Winston-Salem Inc.
“The MURR program seems to address the need for additional aid in industries impacted by COVID-related closures. We have started sharing information about MURR’s funding with our members and we are getting warm responses regarding the prospect of additional aid.
“Hopefully, the application, selection, and dollar disbursement processes run fairly and smoothly,” Owens said.
Applicants must certify that: they were closed during the period of April 1 through July 31; they expect to be able to operate after the COVID-19 crisis has passed; and they have not been reimbursed by any other federal source for the expenses for which they seek reimbursement through this program.
Eligible applicants include: amusement parks; banquet halls (with catering staff); bars, taverns, nightclubs, cocktail lounges; bingo parlors; bowling alleys/centers; dance halls; indoor fitness and recreation centers; motion picture/movie theaters (except drive-ins); and museums.
Many of those businesses have been shut down for the duration of the pandemic, or were able to open only with limited indoor capacity since Phase 2.5 began Sept. 4.
For more information about a webinar schedule and the overall program, go to www.nccommerce.com/murr.
Journal reporter John Dell contributed to this article
Concerned about COVID-19?
Sign up now to get the most recent coronavirus headlines and other important local and national news sent to your email inbox daily.