At 5:01 p.m. on Friday, North Carolina took its first step toward post-pandemic normalcy. 

It was a very small step. You probably didn’t notice. 

If you live in Durham, in fact, nothing changed at all. The county’s stay-at-home order remains in effect until this Friday, and it will likely be extended with modifications, Mayor Steve Schewel told me last week. 

But the rest of the Triangle and most of the state entered phase 1 of Governor Cooper’s three-part reopening plan. So now, after five homebound weeks, you can go to a state park and meet with no more than 10 friends in the backyard.


There’s more to it than that, of course. While the state remains under a stay-at-home order, you’re now allowed to leave both for essential activities and commercial ones. We’ve also dropped the distinction between essential and nonessential businesses, which means almost everyone can go into the office, though telework is still encouraged. 

Because folks are returning to work, the state is also allowing daycares and summer day camps to cater to the children of people working both essential and nonessential jobs, as well as those looking for work—considering more than a million North Carolinians have filed for unemployment in the last two months, more than 20 percent of the entire state workforce, that’s a lot of you. 

Some businesses are still prohibited: gyms, movie theaters, performance venues, salons, massage parlors, etc. Restaurants are still takeout-and-delivery-only. Bars can still sell beer and wine to go, but since the General Assembly didn’t include cocktails to go in its recent relief package, they are otherwise SOL. Retail shops, however, can bump up from 20 percent capacity to 50 percent. 

State parks and trails have moved from “open at local discretion” to “opening encouraged,” though playgrounds are still closed. Worship services and demonstrations are allowed outside “unless impossible.” And groups of 10 or fewer can gather together, so long as they’re outside and maintain social distance. 

Oh, and everyone should wear face coverings. It’s not required, but it’s encouraged. (It will almost certainly continue to be required in Durham, Schewel says.) 

Phase 1 is supposed to last at least two to three weeks. If the data indicates that it’s wise, Cooper says, the state could move into phase 2 as early as May 22. The stay-at-home order will finally be lifted, and bars and restaurants will be allowed to open at limited capacity, as will gyms and personal-care services. Religious facilities and entertainment venues can reopen, as well, though at reduced capacity. And more than 10 people will be allowed to get together. 

Phase 2 is expected to last four to six weeks. Sometime in late June or early July—again, if all goes well—we’ll get to phase 3, and the state will return to something almost recognizable as normal if we even remember what that looked like. 

All of that is much too long for some Republicans in the General Assembly. 

Last week, they introduced a bill to reduce the penalties for violating Cooper’s executive order to almost nothing. Given that Democrats can sustain Cooper’s veto, the bill is unlikely to become law. Sure, part of the pushback is a political calculation. Cooper’s approval numbers have risen sharply over the last two months, which bodes poorly for GOP fortunes this fall. 

But there’s also genuine frustration about a prolonged economic shutdown with seemingly no end on the horizon. The longer this drags on, and the deeper the malaise gets, the more pronounced that sentiment will become. That’s likely to be a defining conflict of the months to come. 

This week, as the state begins taking a slow, tepid step out of isolation, we wanted to explore what those months to come will look like—the political conflicts, but also the economic and public health implications, the effects on our culture and food scenes, even the impacts on our mental health.  

COVID-19 has reshaped the world and our community in ways we’re only beginning to grapple with. Many of the questions we’ll ask in the pages to come don’t have well-defined answers. That’s to be expected; this is an event unlike any in modernity. But now’s the time to begin asking them.


Here’s what the best COVID-19 models tell us about what’s in store for North Carolina’s future.

Experts say reopening North Carolina too soon endangers our most vulnerable.

One side effect of the pandemic: psychological trauma.

Will COVID-19 change North Carolina politics this year?

The uncertain future of live entertainment in the Triangle.

Here’s what the post-pandemic restaurant scene will look like

Six dreams in the dark: a movie theater elegy.

Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at

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