North Carolina could begin a three-phased reopening after May 8, Governor Cooper said Thursday, but only if the state meets certain benchmarks in slowing the spread of coronavirus. 

Cooper extended the state’s stay-at-home order, which was previously in place until April 29, to May 8. For the next two weeks, officials will be monitoring the number of coronavirus cases to determine if reopening can begin.

The decision to reopen the state will be based on data, Cooper said. 

“I know the people in our state are eager to move forward and we will get there,” Cooper said. “We know we won’t go back to the way we lived in January or February this year anytime soon. We need a vaccine.” 

“But,” Cooper added, “if we keep protecting ourselves and go back to work and play carefully, we can rebuild the damage this virus has done to our state.” 

The reopening will only begin if the state hits its targets, said Mandy Cohen, secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services, including expanding the state’s testing capacity to 5,000 to 7,000 tests per day and increasing supplies of personal protective equipment at hospitals.

The decision will also depend on the trajectory of coronavirus cases. The goal is to see a decline in the number of new cases. On Thursday, the state reported the second-highest number of new cases to date, 388 more than Wednesday. 

However, the overall trend in new cases seems to be “leveling” and “increasing slightly,” Cohen said. 

“You want to see a decline in this trajectory,” Cohen said. “We do not see that yet.”

Officials are also monitoring the rate of hospitalizations and the percentage of positive confirmed cases out of total tests conducted.

As Cohen noted, “as we test more, we know we’ll find more.”

“What we are seeing in the last few days is the percentage positive rate is going down, and that’s a great thing,” Cohen said. “We haven’t seen that become a trend, but it’s a good early sign.”

If the state is able to see a decline or “sustained leveling” in the trajectory of the virus based on those metrics and can ramp up testing and increase supplies of personal protective gear, it will begin lifting restrictions in three phases.

Here’s what that could look like:

Phase 1 (possibly starting after May 8)

➡️ Stay-at-home order remains in place, but people are allowed to leave to shop.

➡️ Retailers will need to implement social distancing and cleaning protocols. 

➡️ Gatherings limited to no more than 10 people.

➡️ Parks reopen with gathering limits.

➡️ Masks and face coverings recommended in public.

➡️ Teleworking encouraged.

➡️ Restrictions on nursing homes and long-term care facilities remain in place.

Phase 2 (at least 2-3 weeks after phase 1) 

➡️ Stay-at-home order is lifted, but vulnerable populations are encouraged to continue staying home. 

➡️ Limited reopening of restaurants, bars, and other nonessential businesses with strict safety protocols and reduced capacity. 

➡️ Gatherings allowed at religious facilities and entertainment venues. 

➡️ Public playgrounds reopen.

➡️ More than 10 people are allowed to gather.

➡️ Restrictions on nursing homes and long-term care facilities remain in place.

Phase 3 (at least 4-6 weeks after phase 2) 

➡️ Vulnerable populations can leave home but should continue social distancing.

➡️ More people will be allowed inside, restaurants, bars, churches, and event venues.

➡️ Restrictions limiting the number of people who can gather will be lifted.

➡️ “Rigorous restrictions” on nursing homes and long-term care facilities continue. 

However, Cooper made clear the state may need to reinstitute restrictions if the trends reverse. 

“If our infections spike or our benchmarks trends start to move in the wrong direction, we may have to move to a previous phase,” Cooper said. 

Contact Raleigh editor Leigh Tauss at

DEAR READERS, WE NEED YOUR HELP NOW MORE THAN EVER. Support independent local journalism by joining the INDY Press Club today. Your contributions will keep our fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle, coronavirus be damned.