Pressure continued to build Tuesday on Gov. Roy Cooper and his administration to act sooner than May 8 on beginning the reopening of the state’s economy.
Cooper responded by saying he and the state will continue to “rely on science and data and facts and consultation with our business community who want to protect their employees.”
Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s health secretary, has said that before the state can start lifting restrictions, it needs to see a decreasing or sustained numbers of cases and a decreasing percentage of tests showing up positive for the coronavirus.
Cohen said the state also needs to see decreasing or leveling of hospitalizations, along with more testing, more employees to trace contacts among people testing positive, and a reliable 30-day supply of key personal protection items, such as gowns and masks.
“We want to get our testing up to the point where we can go in and test at job sites, nursing homes where someone has tested positive or there’s an outbreak,” Cooper said.
The state Department of Health and Human Services entered into a partnership Monday with two nonprofit groups to increase the number of individuals conducting contact tracing from 250 to 500.
More than 1,500 ReOpen NC protesters appeared in Raleigh Tuesday at the first day of the 2020 legislative session, urging Cooper to relax his stay-at-home executive order that has been extended to at least May 8.
Protesters called for allowing non-essential businesses to open their doors, and for counties with limited COVID-19 exposure to enter Cooper’s three-stage process before hot spots in urban areas.
Photos and videos from Raleigh media outlets showed the majority of protesters ignored federal and state guidelines that prohibit mass gatherings, and require social distancing and wearing protective masks in public.
Some demonstrators lingered for a few hours and ended up in front of the Executive Mansion. Ashley Smith, a ReopenNC co-founder, was one of three people that police arrested after Smith stepped on the sidewalk in front of the Mansion after she was told not to by police in an act of civil disobedience, according to Smith’s husband, Adam. State Capitol Police referred questions to a Department of Public Safety spokesman, who said officers arrested four people but didn’t immediately have additional details.
A grassroots group called Health Care Workers Defend NC also appeared at the state capitol to counter the ReOpen NC presence, calling them “careless demonstrators.”
“They are putting themselves and their families at considerable risk for COVID-19 by disregarding social distancing and forgoing face coverings,” the advocacy group said in a statement. “In turn, this puts health care professionals, hospital staff and vulnerable patients at risk when this disregard of social distancing leads to more cases of COVID-19 and more hospitalizations.”
Amber Brown, a nurse practitioner who lives in Kernersville, returned Tuesday to Raleigh and joined other counter-protesters at the ReOpen North Carolina rally.
Brown said that protesters didn’t personally insult her as they did on April 21 when a female protester attacked Brown for her weight.
At Tuesday’s demonstration, some protesters yelled at her and other counter-protesters, Brown said.
“It was still hostile,” Brown said of the protesters. “It was still angry.”
“I think it’s important that our message gets out that ReOpen North Carolina doesn’t represent all of North Carolina,” Brown said. “They don’t actually represent the people staying at home.
“And we need to stick to the governor’s plan,” Brown said. “We need to continue to flatten the curve. We are not ready to reopen.”
Cooper said he understands the desire of the ReOpen protesters for a return to a sense of normalcy.
“We have to put out first and foremost public health and safety of North Carolinians,” Cooper said. “We have to make sure things are safe.
“I’m very eager to move into our phases of reopening. The indicators will tell us how fast that we’re going to get there, and I hope that we move through these as quickly as possible.”
Meanwhile, a group of state Senate Republican leaders, led by Forsyth legislator Joyce Krawiec, is pushing for Cooper and Cohen to provide updated COVID-19 case modeling since the April 6 presentation by several university researchers.
DHHS said an update could be provided today.
The primary purpose of the modeling report was measuring the capacity of hospitals in the state to handle a major surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
Public-health researchers from Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill projected that infections from the COVID-19 virus could total 250,000 in North Carolina by June 1 if state restrictions are extended until then.
As dire as that sounds considering the confirmed case count was 9,568 as of Tuesday morning, that was the positive outlook from researchers.
Researchers cautioned that if the stay-at-home restrictions were to have been lifted Wednesday as Cooper initially decided, the infection rate could surge to 750,000.
“Your administration’s executive orders have impacted every one of this state’s 10 million residents,” according to the letter signed by Krawiec and Sens. Ralph Hise, R-McDowell, and Jim Burgin, R-Johnston. All three are members of the Senate Health Care committee with Krawiec serving as chairwoman.
“As a basis for the restrictions you have put in place, your orders explicitly cite the modeling developed with academic collaborators under the direction of (DHHS). The data and assumptions underlying those models are therefore of exceptional public interest and import.
“Yet you have declined to answer basic questions about your modeling,” the senators wrote.
The senators requested “precise projected COVID-19 hospitalizations and hospital capacities, all assumptions used to create the model, all records associated with the model’s development, including all correspondence within DHHS, and all correspondence between DHHS and outside researchers.”
“Transparency, not secrecy, will foster public trust during a pandemic,” the senators wrote.
Cooper said that “we can affect what the modeling shows by obeying these restrictions and social distancing and staying at home.”
“The indicators that we have put forth are very specific. Those are real numbers on a day-to-day basis, like number of cases, percentage of positive cases, hospitalizations, pre-COVID symptoms.
Journal reporter John Hinton and The Associated Press contributed to this story.