Gov. Roy Cooper on Monday extended the closure of K-12 public schools until at least May 15, lowered the threshold of large gatherings to 50 people and ordered the closing of a number of new businesses, including gyms and hair salons.
"We know the effects of this pandemic will not subside anytime soon," Cooper said during an afternoon news conference. "I know that these actions cause hardship and heartache for a lot of people. But they are necessary to save lives."
Cooper and other education leaders still hold out hope schools can reopen this year. The governor noted that public schools were able to stay open during the Great Depression despite "the tremendous financial challenge.
"In that spirit, I'm not ready to give up on this year for school," Cooper said, adding that many parents were probably expecting the closure of schools to be extended beyond March 27 in his initial order. "I know this is extremely difficult for you and your children. But this is what we need to do to help to slow the spread of the virus.
"And I am committed to ensuring that our students get an education and as much of an education as they can this year."
Cooper said he has asked the State Board of Education and the Department of Public Instruction, as well as the N.C. General Assembly, to develop a plan for educating students remotely.
"That includes providing out students with as much digital learning as possible and a real connection to our schools even while the buildings themselves are closed," he said. "We need to maximize the time left this year as much as possible."
He said the plan also needs to outline how employees can work "safely and to get paid during this time."
Cooper said they arrived at the date of May 15 for reopening after reviewing U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidance.
"But this is a rapidly evolving health crisis," he said. "And if the guidance changes we will adjust the order."
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson said the department and schools are already working on those plans and that more information would be forthcoming to local school districts.
"Last week, it became clear last week that this would become a multi-month event," Johnson said. "We understand how hard this is."
Johnson and Allan Duncan, vice chairman of the State Board of Education, both said officials are working with leaders of the General Assembly and the federal government to waive testing requirements and allow calendar flexibility among other issues. Johnson assured seniors that "you still will be on track to graduate this June."
Duncan said remote learning is going "to look different" in communities across the state because of "inequities in resources and digital access."
"We will take all possible steps to mitigate these inequities and articulate best practices," Duncan said.
Duncan said they hope schools will be able to open by May 15 but cautioned that things could change.
"We will reopen if, and only if, public health officials say we can," Duncan said.
Duncan said that the state will continue to work on plans for schools to provide education for students to finish out this school year. He said it will be challenging.
"We are in stormy, uncharted waters." he said.
Cooper praised school employees for their efforts for "going above and beyond" serving students during this time, especially those who are "most vulnerable." He said 1,100 schools have provided more than 1.2 million meals since the crisis began.
"And our schools are getting creative about how to best do remote leaning," he said.
He said he has convened a conference call of Internet service providers urging them to do more to get access to students who need it as quickly as possible."
Cooper said his order reducing the threshold for mass public gathering to 50 is based on current guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. He said there are no plans at this time to issue an order for people to stay at home, as several other states with larger outbreaks have done.
"We urge people to maintain social distancing," Cooper said of staying six feet away from others, "and to stay and work from home as much as possible."
In addition, Cooper has ordered that a number of businesses close by 5 p.m. Wednesday if not sooner, to stem the spread of the virus, especially those are unable to provide social distancing. Those include gyms, health clubs, spas, hair and nail salons, barber shops, massage therapists, movie theaters, bowling alleys, sweepstakes parlors, video game parlors, tattoo parlors and live performance venues.
The governor said grocery stores will remain open, and he urged residents to resist over-buying. He said he has spoken with nearly all of the major grocery store chains.
"They continue to tell me that supply lines are open," Cooper said. "They are also hiring former restaurant workers."
Cooper said the state has taken "early aggressive action," which also included previous orders to close down bars and restaurants for dine-in service, "to flatten the curve and help prevent a spike in cases that would overwhelm our medical system"
As of Monday morning, the state had 297 confirmed cases of coronavirus in 45 of its 100 counties and no deaths. Moore County still has just two confirmed cases. More than 8,400 residents have been tested and more than 10,000 are waiting for results, Cooper said.
"We continue to test and continue to see cases increasings," he said. "Even though we didn't get enough testing supplies from the federal government that we needed, we found more ways to get people tested."
Cooper said the state continues to track "critical supplies" of personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves and gowns, for both health care workers and first responders as well as human resources.
"And right now we need both," he said. "We are recruiting volunteers and companies to supplement our healthcare workforce."
He said more than 300 people have already come forward to volunteer.
Cooper said he is "perusing all channels" to buy protective equipment. He said they are also asking volunteers to donate supplies if they are able.
He said he has also been in contact with some of the state's major manufacturers about making some of these supplies and many are working on that.
Dr. Mandy Cohen, director of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said the "strongest weapon" the public has in preventing the spread of the virus is social distancing, staying six feet from other people. She said washing your hands frequently, coughing into your elbow and staying home if you are sick are also important.
"We expect folks in North Carolina go beyond these mandates and are doing their part to limit the spread of the virus," she said. "This is a new disease and we continue to learn information as it becomes available."
She said the vast majority of people who contact the virus will have mild symptoms and recover at home. She encouraged people who think they have been infected to first talk with their doctor or health care provider "to determine the best course of action for you."
Cohen said everyone must be "particularly vigilant" for those who are at higher risk for serious illness. She said the CDC has revised guidelines for that group — those over age 65 and while underlying medical conditions such as chronic lung disease, heart disease, diabetes and weakened immune systems.
Residents of nursing homes and other senior living facilities and jails have also been added to the list, Cohen said.
She said women who are pregnant also need to be closely monitored. She said while children in general are at lower risk, infants should also be monitored closely.
Cohen also said social distancing is "virtually impossible in some critical settings" such as child care. She said families can help by keeping their children at home.
"However, as I have stated before, child care is a critical service," she said. "We need that child care to be available to keep our communities safe and healthy. We want to have quality child care so those on the front lines can know that their children are being well cared for as they care for others."
She said the state on Monday sent updated health, safety and operation guidelines to child providers so they can stay open and "best protect the health and safety of both the child care workforce and the children and families they serve."
"We know the child care industry, like many others, are also struggling financially," Cohen said. "We are also actively pursuing options for financial support to child care programs in order to assure available child care is there for those families who need it during this crisis."