North Carolina’s governor announced Wednesday that people across the state must wear masks or other face coverings in public as he extended other business restrictions by three weeks amid a surge in cases of COVID-19.
Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order requiring people to wear face coverings in public when it’s not possible to maintain physical distance. The order also mandates face coverings for employees of businesses including retailers and restaurants, as well as state executive branch employees. The order takes effect on Friday.
Violations of Cooper’s executive orders are generally punishable as a misdemeanor, but Wednesday's order directs law enforcement to issue citations to businesses or organizations that fail to enforce mask requirements, not individuals. The order notes that people who refuse to wear a mask and won't leave a business can be penalized under trespassing laws. The mask order exempts those with certain health conditions, young children and people strenuously exercising, among other situations.
Several other states including California and Washington have statewide mask requirements.
Cooper, a Democrat, also extended restrictions that limit capacity at retailers, restaurants and public gatherings until July 17. Businesses including bars, movie theaters and gyms must also remain closed. The rules are part of Cooper's Phase 2 of reopening, which began last month.
A legislative effort led by Republican lawmakers to allow gyms and bars to reopen failed on Wednesday when House leaders couldn't muster enough votes to override Cooper's veto of the measure to scale back the governor's business restrictions.
Cooper's executive order comes as the state reports its second-highest one-day jump in virus cases at around 1,700. About 900 people are currently hospitalized, also representing the second-highest mark in that category.
“The numbers we see are a stark warning, and we must pay attention,” Cooper said.
Cooper said the state currently has sufficient hospital capacity, but that could quickly change if virus trends don’t improve. Statewide, health officials say approximately 20% of both inpatient beds and intensive care beds remain available, based on reports from the vast majority of hospitals.
“Doctors and health care experts have warned that hospital capacity can be overwhelmed in the blink of an eye," Cooper said. "And once we see that capacity is gone, it can be too late to reverse the tide.”
Republicans including Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, Cooper's opponent in the November governor's race, have urged him to allow businesses to reopen more quickly.
Wednesday's executive order was criticized by Republican state Senate leader Phil Berger, who noted that Cooper walked among demonstrators without a mask during a protest earlier this month against racial injustice outside the executive mansion. Cooper later announced he had tested negative for the virus after the brief walk through the crowd.
“The inconsistencies and hypocrisy continue to eat away at the trust in and credibility of this administration,” Berger said.