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North Carolina's Phase Three reopening delayed; face coverings to be required statewide

Gov. Roy Cooper said Wednesday that the potential Phase Three reopening of North Carolina’s economy will be delayed for more than three weeks, to July 17.

The state could have entered that phase Friday evening. Instead, Cooper has chosen to continue the “safer-at-home” phase that began May 22.

Cooper also said he will make it mandatory for people to wear face coverings when they are out in public with limited exceptions. That mandate goes into effect at 5 p.m. Friday.

The Cooper administration is 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 people coming to hospital emergency rooms with COVID-19 symptoms.

“The numbers we see are a stark warning, and we must pay attention,” Cooper said.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported earlier Wednesday that there were 1,721 new cases statewide — the second highest daily total since the pandemic began in mid-March.

Hospitalizations were at 906 as of noon Wednesday, just nine down from the high of 915 set Tuesday. The DHHS also reported 20 new virus-related deaths, including four in Guilford County and two in Forsyth County.

“The indicators (are) moving in the wrong direction,” Cooper said.

Statewide COVID-19 cases and death counts were at 12,997 and 533, respectively, on May 8 — the start of the Phase One reopening.

Statewide cases and deaths were at 22,725 and 746, respectively, on May 22 — the start of the Phase Two reopening.

As of noon Wednesday, the cases and deaths were 56,174 and 1,271, respectively.

“North Carolina is relying on the data and the science to lift restrictions responsibly, and right now our increasing numbers show we need to hit the pause button while we work to stabilize our trends,” Cooper said. “As we watch these trends during the pause, we hope to be able to ease restrictions on playgrounds, museums and gyms.”

GOP response

N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, reacted to Cooper’s decision on the three-week pause by attempting to contrast the response to recent mass gathering events.

“In Roy Cooper’s North Carolina, the governor can walk with a group of protesters with no mask on, but you can’t take your son or daughter to a playground,” Berger said in a statement. “Rioters can break windows and set fires with impunity, but you can’t exercise on an elliptical machine.

“We’re assured that masses of mask-less people gathered together in the streets caused no rise in cases, yet we’re now all required to wear masks because the danger is too great.

“The inconsistencies and hypocrisy continue to eat away at the trust in and credibility of this administration,” Berger said.

State Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, and a leading health care expert in the legislature, said reopening the state’s economy “is a balancing act: the health of the public verses the return to some sense of normal.”

“Generally, I believe you can do both. Open back up our businesses and economy, while informing and asking our citizens to be proactive in practicing caution against the virus. Citizens need to be aware this is a deadly virus, highly contagious, with no vaccine.

“We need to track and trace the outbreaks better to inform those who have been in an area where someone has the virus,” Lambeth said. “This issue divides people in their opinions, and it is still months until we have a vaccination.”

Frustrating decision

Under Phase Two of Cooper’s three-part plan to reopen the state, he chose to keep closed several businesses that had been projected to reopen with similar 50% capacity limits that restaurants and personal-care services must observe.

Those businesses include bars, nightclubs, public playgrounds, gyms and fitness centers, movie theaters, bowling alleys, bingo parlors, and museums.

Cooper said part of his decision was based on not letting too many businesses reopen at the same time, thus potentially increasing the spread of the virus.

He said he understands the frustration of people and businesses about the delays to entering Phase Three.

“This is not where we planned to be or wanted to be,” Cooper said. “This virus has been very difficult for business owners still under restrictions. They are anxious to open their doors.”

Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s health secretary, has recommended keeping fitness facilities closed until Phase Three.

Cohen has said those facilities carry higher risk for spread of the virus in part because people working out are breathing harder and respiratory droplets can be discharged at greater distances.

“We need to all work together so we can protect our families and neighbors, restore our economy, and get people back to work and our children back to school,” Cooper said. “We want to stabilize our numbers so we can ease restrictions. Slowing the spread helps our economy.”

Socioeconomic impact

The pandemic is understandably testing the patience and goodwill of most people, said Zagros Madjd-Sadjadi, an economics professor at Winston-Salem State University.

“As this becomes more and more the new normal, we will likely see a much more tepid recovery than we would have had if we had been able to keep COVID-19 in check as we reopened,” Madjd-Sadjadi said.

“The longer we stay in this reduced activity period, the more likely that we will see a generation scarred by it.”

Madjd-Sadjadi compared it to the psychological impact that the Great Depression had in terms of people cutting back on consumption and being more debt-averse.

Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation, said he remains uncertain that the public health benefits of the pause will outweigh the economic health damage.

“A number of business owners already have decided they never will be able to come back,” Kokai said.

“That list will continue to grow as owners contemplate whether they will be able to return to work after spending another three weeks with lights off and doors closed.”

Protesters confront sheriff during march for woman who died at Guilford County jail

GREENSBORO — Protesters confronted Guilford County Sheriff Danny Rogers on Wednesday during a rally seeking justice for a Greensboro woman who died in custody in the Guilford County jail two years ago.

An autopsy showed Tasha Thomas, 33, died shortly before midnight on May 2, 2018, three days after being jailed on charges of probation violation and possession of a controlled substance.

During a rally and march held outside of the Guilford County jail Wednesday afternoon, about 30 to 40 protesters chanted Thomas’ name and called for justice.

The medical examiner concluded Thomas died of “sepsis due to infective endocarditis,” an infection in the heart that usually affects the valves, “due to chronic injection drug use,” the sheriff’s office said, but Thomas’ mother Rochelle Thomas-Boyd alleged her daughter was not properly cared for in jail.

Thomas-Boyd argued that sepsis “does not break bones. It does not pull hair from the roots.”

“The autopsy says one thing,” Thomas-Boyd said. “We have something that says something else.”

She said she and her family have suspected foul play since the day they learned of her daughter’s death.

“When we went to the hospital to identify her body, they would not allow us to identify her body,” Thomas-Boyd said. “They said that her body was on restriction. I was quite angry.”

She declined to provide details, but Thomas-Boyd said a demand letter was filed with the sheriff’s office by her attorney. If the demands aren’t met in an allotted time, Thomas-Boyd said, a lawsuit will be filed.

Tasha Thomas’ best friend, Raven Johnson, wore a single red contact lens with a devil’s tail during the rally.

“I’m mad as hell and the devil is coming out of me today,” Johnson said.

Johnson said she heard her friend had asked and begged for help before her death.

“When she was asking for help, they should have helped,” she said. “That was my best friend.”

Thomas’ 15-year-old daughter, Iona Thomas, also wore a red contact lens Wednesday.

Iona said she was mad when she learned of her mother’s death and that she often still finds herself upset, but said, “I try and try to push through it because I know that’s what she would want me to do.”

She said she hopes for change that will lead to justice for her mother.

Several community members spoke just outside of the jail before a short march to Guilford County offices. The Rev. Nelson Johnson invited the community to stand in support of Tasha Thomas’ family, while community activists like Kiera Hereford stressed that dying n a jail cell is not natural, despite Thomas’ death being attributed to natural causes.

“As a Black mother,” Hereford said, “I cannot imagine waiting three minutes to find out why and how my child died,” but it took three months before Tasha Thomas’ family received the medical examiner’s report.

During a short march Wednesday, protesters veered off South Eugene Street and into the parking lot at Guilford County’s offices.

Protesters were unexpectedly joined by the sheriff and Sheriff’s Attorney James Secor outside the offices.

In response to protesters screaming for justice, Rogers, who is Black, quietly responded, “I get it. No justice, no peace. Do Black lives matter? Yes. I understand that as well.”

Protesters like Emmanuel Johnson, Raven Johnson’s husband, directly confronted the sheriff.

“This girl wants an answer,” he told Rogers, pointing toward Tasha Thomas’ daughter Iona, “for why her mama got locked up for a probation charge and died in a jail cell. Look that girl in the face and give her the answer.”

“It happened before my watch,” Rogers said, addressing Thomas-Boyd directly. He noted changes within the jail but didn’t speak specifically about Tasha Thomas.

In response to the protest, the sheriff’s office released a statement later Wednesday afternoon reiterating that the death occurred during the previous sheriff’s administration.

The sheriff’s office said that Rogers has known Tasha Thomas’ mother for a number of years and that the staff is working with the attorney representing Thomas’ estate to share available information. Per the medical examiner, the sheriff’s office said that Thomas’ infection was caused by events before her arrest and not by any conditions or lack of medical attention in the jail.

The sheriff’s office said the medical examiner also determined there were no physical injuries which caused or contributed to her death, adding that no evidence of any jail neglect or foul play was found.

When protesters demanded video footage of Thomas’ death in the jail be shown, Secor told Thomas-Boyd, “If you want to see the footage, we will show you the footage. We never had a request for it.”

Thomas-Boyd said her attorney will put in a request for the footage, but protesters remained impassioned, one calling on Secor to say the words “Black lives matter.”

“All lives matter, including yours,” he responded.

Rogers and Secor returned inside the office building, but protesters remained for several more minutes. A blockade of deputies with bicycles kept protesters from the building.

Protesters called on the deputies to join them by saying “Black lives matter.” Several protesters rushed to shake the hand of a solitary deputy who responded in kind, but the remaining deputies stayed silent until protesters marched back to the jail.

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