Gov. Roy Cooper said Wednesday — as expected — that North Carolina will remain in Phase Three for another three weeks because the state's key COVID-19 metrics are heading in the wrong direction.
Cooper's executive order No. 170 extends Phase Three to Nov. 14 to give state public health officials more time to monitor viral trends.
The extension also allows the Cooper administration to continue its reopening balancing act past the Nov. 3 general election.
Cooper has said he hopes the state will see a post-election easing of the politicization of social-distancing guidelines, particularly mask wearing.
“As this pandemic continues, I know it’s difficult and tiring to keep up our guard, especially when we’re gathered with people we love," Cooper said.
But it’s necessary, he added.
"No one wants to spread COVID-19 accidentally to friends or family, so we must keep prevention at the forefront."
The Cooper administration has been 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.
The recent statewide COVID-19 surge cleared two somber thresholds Wednesday with more than 250,000 cases and more than 4,000 virus-related deaths.
Perhaps the most concerning is the fluctuating positive test rate, which has been as low as 4.6% on Sept. 24 and as high as 7.9% on Oct. 4. There was a 7.4% positive rate out of Monday's 22,743 tests in North Carolina.
Both Cooper and Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state's health secretary, said the extension of Phase Three will allow for more accumulation of COVID-19 data through mid-November.
"We know these numbers are not where we want them to be," Cooper said. "We will continue to watch these trends and do whatever is necessary.
"We're not in the middle of a spike. We haven't seen one yet, largely due to peoples' persistence and the strong action that we've taken."
The governor said he is keeping in place the three reopening options for public schools, rather than removing the in-classroom option.
The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Board of Education canceled Wednesday a planned Thursday vote on whether to delay by two weeks the return of more students to school buildings.
Although the board will meet to discuss its next step at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, it announced the two-week delay for hundreds of Forsyth pre-kindergarten and students in exceptional children programs who had been set to return on Monday.
Guilford County Schools delayed Monday the planned Tuesday reopening of K-2nd grade classes and its board of education plans to vote Friday on whether to reopen on Oct. 26.
"With respect to staying in Phase Three, there is no surprise here given the recent rise in cases," said Zagros Madjd-Sadjadi, an economics professor at Winston-Salem State University.
"There could be some tightening of restrictions post-election, as cases may continue to rise given the general fatigue of the populace that has resulted in less adherence to the guidelines.
"However, I think such measures will likely be minor if they occur since generally North Carolina continues to perform well in other metrics and at least some of the higher prevalence of COVID-19 infections may be unavoidable."
Mitch Kokai, a senior policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation, said that given Cooper’s “propensity for erring on the side of extreme caution … it’s not surprising that he would not permit relaxation of his restrictions at this time.”
“One need not question his sincerity to note as well that his latest order fits well with the way he has waged his campaign for re-election. He has portrayed himself as the candidate trying to protect North Carolinians.”
“The election will change the calculus,” Kokai said. “Gov. Cooper will undoubtedly feel more freedom to act — whether to loosen or tighten restrictions — when he no longer has to calculate the political risks and benefits.”
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