North Carolina won’t ease restrictions on its economy and residents before May 22, despite increasing pressure from local businesses and Republican leaders. 

During a news conference Tuesday, May 12, Gov. Roy Cooper reiterated May 22 is the earliest possible date to move to the next phase of relaxed social-distancing mandates. 

As neighboring states reopen businesses, Cooper is coming under fire for following a slower, phased plan to resume normal activities. The six Republicans on the Council of State — the 10 statewide elected executive branch officers — called on Cooper to convene the council “as soon as possible” to address the crisis, saying his office was “lagging” in communication and providing “minimal guidance.”

Cooper said he offered to set up a meeting and briefing on the crisis during last week’s Council of State meeting, and that he “looks forward” to the briefing.

“Pandemics cannot be partisan,” Cooper said. “We’re going to rely on the science and the facts to tell us when we need to reopen. I know that people are hurting because of this virus, and I know our economy is hurting because of this virus. But the health of our people and our economy go hand in hand.”

As of Tuesday, North Carolina had 15,346 confirmed cases, 577 deaths, and 475 hospitalizations. Some 85% of deaths were in people older than 65, while roughly 60% of deaths were linked to nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. More than a million North Carolina workers have filed for unemployment benefits. 

The six Republicans on the Council of State wrote Cooper to ask him to reconsider and discuss the effect of the restrictions on restaurants, salons, and church and worship services, among others. 

“We all understand that shelter-in-place cannot exist forever,” they wrote. “The citizens of North Carolina, especially those in need of protecting their livelihoods, are looking to our state leaders to come together and reopen responsibly as soon as possible.”

But Cooper remained firm on his original reopening date, saying state experts need to study certain benchmarks over a 14-day period to determine when the state should move to its second phase of reopening. 

“I don’t think it can happen any earlier, because we need that whole period of time to know how we’re doing,” Cooper said. “We have to make sure that people continue staying at home as much as possible.”

When asked what he would request of the state’s congressional delegation, Cooper said state governments should be allowed to use some of the money in the federal CARES Act to replenish state tax dollars lost from the economic shutdown. That proposal was first made in April by John Locke Foundation CEO Amy Cooke, along with other state policy think tank leaders. The federal COVID-19 relief package requires states to spend on new programs rather than replace money they had budgeted before the pandemic hit. 

A bill pending in the U.S. House would allow that flexibility.

Cooper remained firm on the restrictions limiting church services to the outdoors. 

“We are aware of First Amendment rights and want to protect those,” Cooper said. “Some people are trying to compare this with retail. There’s a big difference. With retail, people are moving around. They don’t have as much of a chance to spread the virus. … It is still dangerous to hold indoor services when more than 10 people are there and they are closer together.”

North Carolina is conducting 5,000 to 7,000 coronavirus tests a day. The state’s supply of protective gear will help to determine its ability to ramp up testing and restart the economy. The state is identifying local manufacturers who can help produce protective gear, Cooper said.