BREAKING: N.C. drops mask mandate, capacity limits — effective now

Businesses can still require masks but can resume normal operations with no limits; Masks still required in schools, summer camps, public transit, healthcare

Good afternoon! Today is Friday, May 14, 2021, and we’re coming to you with HOT BREAKING NEWS.

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A big milestone in Covid saga: Gov. Cooper lifts most restrictions; urges more vaccinations

by Tony Mecia

In a sweeping elimination of Covid restrictions, North Carolina is getting rid of capacity and gathering limits and social distancing requirements — and dropping mandatory mask-wearing in most circumstances for people who are vaccinated.

Gov. Roy Cooper, who strode to the lectern at an afternoon news conference with no mask for the first time in nearly a year, said the changes are effective immediately.

He said the changes were adopted after talking with medical experts and represent “a big step forward.” They came just a day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that people who are fully vaccinated don’t need to wear masks or practice social distancing indoors or outdoors.

What it means: The lifting of most requirements will start to clear the way for residents to go to offices, restaurants, stores and most other places without a face covering. And shops, restaurants, bars and other places that had previously had to limit capacity can resume normal operations. It could also encourage companies to hasten recalling at-home workers to the office.

Businesses can still make independent judgments on whether to require masks for customers or workers. Health and human services secretary Mandy Cohen said she had heard that companies including Home Depot and Starbucks would continue with mask requirements for customers and employees. Many large companies will probably take some time to figure out their next steps, while some smaller businesses might be quicker to ditch masks.

Mask exceptions: Masks will still be required in certain settings, including public transportation, childcare, schools, prisons and hospitals and doctors’ offices, and Cohen said they would continue to be recommended in places where there are large indoor gatherings of people, including sporting arenas.

[Read the new executive order here.]

Honor system: Of course, there is no system in place to verify who is vaccinated and who isn’t, so going without masks in public settings will essentially be on the honor system.

Cooper acknowledged that the new rules would result in unvaccinated people no longer wearing masks, in violation of recommendations. But he said that could actually encourage those people to get vaccinated, since others aren’t wearing masks, either: “This tells people who are not vaccinated that the virus is still out there. … It should tell the unvaccinated that it is time to get a vaccine right now.”

Milestone: The move is a big milestone in returning to normal after the worst periods of the pandemic. In North Carolina, Covid has been linked to nearly 13,000 deaths, 59% of which were of people aged 75 and up. In the previous five years, the average number of yearly deaths was 92,000. Statistics for 2020 are incomplete but are likely to be much higher than average. The state’s population is 10.4 million.

North Carolina’s new rules generally follow the new CDC guidance. People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving their final Covid shot. About 51% of N.C. adults had at least one of those shots as of the middle of this week. Cooper had earlier said he wanted that figure to be 2/3 before dropping mask mandates, but he abandoned that goal after the CDC issued new recommendations.

The new guidance comes as all measures of the spread of Covid have plunged in North Carolina since a January peak.

For instance, here’s the number of daily new cases:

And here’s the number of deaths by date:

No masks, gas flowing … life is looking up. Enjoy the weekend.

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Executive editorTony MeciaManaging editorCristina BollingContributing editor: Tim Whitmire, CXN Advisory