Gov. Roy Cooper said North Carolina’s state of emergency will continue, despite declining COVID numbers.

The announcement came during a news conference Thursday, March 17, announcing new guidelines to measure COVID-19 levels. Cooper has shifted responsibility for dealing with the pandemic to the General Assembly.

He explained the move like this:

“It’s a legal tool that we are using to provide the flexibility that’s needed,” he said. “When the legislature passes a law that gives the flexibility that’s needed, then we’ll do away with it,” said Cooper, a Democrat.

Cooper was asked if the state is still actually facing an emergency, as he used phrases such as “the worst is behind us” and “we are turning a page.”

All 69 GOP House members signed a letter calling on Cooper to rescind the order and “allow the state to move forward.”

Republican lawmakers have tried to rein in the governor’s powers through legislation and finally did so with a provision in Senate Bill 105, the state budget bill, which Cooper signed. Those reforms, however, don’t kick in until Jan. 1 of next year.

Earlier legislation, including House Bill 264, Emergency Powers Accountability Act, would have required the governor to receive concurrence from the 10-member elected Council of State for an emergency declaration of more than seven days, and legislative approval for an emergency to extend beyond 45 days.  Cooper vetoed the bill in November.

Cooper said it has been almost a year since the state ended its statewide mask mandate and capacity limits for businesses. Students and teachers have been in the classroom all year, and in February 2022 Cooper encouraged schools to move to mask-optional policies starting March 7. With an increase in vaccinated and boosted people, he said, the state has entered the next phase.

“It’s time to chart the new course.”

Kody Kinsley, state health secretary, said a new approach from his department regarding COVID will follow four core principles — empowering individuals, maintaining health system capacity, collaborating with local partners, and prioritizing equity.

Kinsley said the percentage of positive tests will no longer be the focus. Because so many people have access to at-home rapid tests, Kinsley said, the health department doesn’t have all the information readily available and doesn’t have a lot of confidence in getting it. Cases reported by health care providers still remain important when looking at trends, but collecting the total number of tests isn’t, as of now, an important metric.

Kinsley said the department has selected seven metrics for the current moment, including wastewater surveillance, which can measure COVID up to four days before the first cases are reported in the community; COVID-like illness reports from emergency rooms; and hospital admission trends as they relate to the virus.

The new metrics will begin appearing on the summary page of the COVID-19 dashboard March 23, and updates will go from a daily to weekly basis.

N.C. Department of Commerce Secretary Machelle Sanders said the department has with 23 economic projects announced so far this year. and released data claiming the state’s economic activity has recovered to pre-pandemic levels, in terms of GDP and employment levels. She attributed the growth in part to announcements of Apple, Fuji Film, and Toyota coming to the state, with taxpayer-paid incentive grants.

Small business formation did spike in 2021, with a record 133,000 new entity tax ID’s being issued. However, UNC researchers say the new businesses are likely forming out of necessity, not necessarily opportunity, as many other small businesses closed permanently during the state government-imposed shutdowns. According to the Federal Reserve more than a million small businesses closed for good nationwide taking about 2.9 million jobs with them. Small service industry businesses, like hair and nail salons were hit the hardest, accounting for about 20% of those closures. Data for 2021 is still coming, but economists believe that continued restrictions, piled up debt, and lack of labor may prove to have pushed more small businesses to close as well.

Many of those employees and small business owners attempted a recovery by putting out their own shingle, according to the Kaufman Foundation which studies early stage entrepreneurship. Kaufman’s research finds that the number of small businesses opening because owners see an opportunity in the market is actually at a 25-year low.

Cooper’s team media appearance comes amid historic 7.5% inflation, the highest in 40 years, gasoline prices nearing $5 per gallon, and election primaries just eight weeks away.