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Cooper issues statewide mask mandate

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RALEIGH — People across the state will be required to wear face coverings when in public to slow the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Wednesday afternoon.

“People must wear face coverings when in public places, indoors or outdoors, where physical distancing of 6-feet from other people who aren’t in the same household or residence isn’t possible,” Cooper said.

Face coverings will also be required for all employees and customers in businesses and restaurants as well as manufacturing, construction, meat processing and agricultural workers. Masks are not required during individual exercise outdoors or for people whose religious beliefs or medical conditions prevent them from wearing a face covering. Children under 11  are also exempt.

The order goes into effect Friday at 5 p.m.

“Required face coverings not only cause zero harm to our economy, they in fact help our economy by making it safer to shop, do business and keep our small businesses running,” Cooper said. “Overwhelming evidence that is growing by the week shows that wearing a face covering can greatly reduce the spread of COVID-19, especially from people who have it and don’t know it yet.”

More than 1,700 new cases were reported statewide Wednesday, the second highest day since the pandemic started. More than 900 people were in the hospital with symptoms.

Around 23% of ICU beds and 19% of hospital beds are available across the state with 88% of hospitals reporting, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Since May 19 the number of people hospitalized has increased 56%, Cooper said.

“Doctors and health care experts have warned that hospital capacity can be overwhelmed in the blink of an eye, and once we see that capacity is gone, it can be too late to reverse the tide,” Cooper said.

Raleigh and Knightdale issued mask mandates last week.

While previous orders encouraged voluntary compliance, law enforcement can cite businesses if all employees are not wearing masks, Cooper said. Officers can also use trespassing laws if a customer refuses to wear a mask and does not leave the business.

Face coverings are a material that covers the nose and mouth and may include factory-made, hand-sewn or improvised masks.

Cooper is also delaying the introduction of Phase 3 of his reopening plan. North Carolina will remain in Phase 2 until at last July 17, he said.

“This is not where we planned to be or wanted to be, but it is one of two important decisions that we need to make to effectively fight this disease,” Cooper said.

Gyms, playgrounds and museums are expected to be among the first to have restrictions eased in July.