By Khalil Howard, Queens University News Service

North Carolina issued tougher restrictions than most neighboring states to combat COVID-19. Now, it has a lower infection rate to match. 

As of March 1, only Virginia had a lower infection rateat 6.71%, than North Carolinas rate of 7.74%. By comparison, Tennessee had the highest infection rate at 11.17%. 

North Carolina and Virginia have statewide mask mandates. Tennessee, South Carolina (8.49%) and Georgia (8.63%) do not. 

As of Feb. 26, Gov. Roy Cooper eased North Carolina restrictions but kept the mask mandate and limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings. Those restrictions are in effect at least until March 26. 

“Today’s action is a show of confidence and trust, but we must remain cautious. People are losing their loved ones each day,” Cooper said in a prepared statement. 

Five states recently dropped statewide mask mandates, despite warnings from federal health officials that this may be too soon. North Carolina is among 34 states that still have one.  

Cooper’s office declined a request for an interview. The office of South Carolina’s governor also declined to comment. Governors offices in the other three states did not respond. 

North Carolina issued the statewide mask mandate on Nov. 23 and Virginia did the same on Dec. 14. At that time, both states had restrictions on the number of people allowed to gathein one place. Virginia set its limit to no more than 25 people at a gathering. North Carolina set its limit to no more than 10 people at a gathering. 

In his newest announcementCooper loosened restrictions on gatherings. They are now 30% capacity, up to 250 people, for the following: bars, meetings, conference spaces, lounges and night clubs, indoor amusement parksmovie theatresindoor sports arenas and indoor venues. Indoor venues with more than 5,000 seats may exceed the 250-person limit, if they follow additional safety measures, up to 15% capacity. 

Businesses that were open before the newest announcement are now allowed 50% capacity. They include restaurants, breweries, wineries, distilleries, fitness and physical facilities (e.g., gyms, bowling alleys, rock climbing facilities), pools, museums, retailers, outdoor amusement parks, salons and tattoo parlors. 

With his order, Cooper also lifted the statewide 10 p.m. curfew.  

The governor emphasized he is only easing restrictions, not lifting them. “The only restriction we will lift is the Modified Stay at Home order,” Cooper said. “That means no more curfew . . .  and more opportunities to gather, shop and attend events if done safely.” 

Cooper has consistently characterized the virus as extremely dangerous and said he is concerned about every citizen. “Each one of these numbers represents a daughter or son, a parent or grandparent, a neighbor or friend,” Cooper said in a prepared statement.   

One NC health care expert said the governor has done a good job to this point, but the expert still expressed concern about easing restrictions.  

“We’ve had sane and sober leadership, which counts for a lot,” Dr. David Wohl, professor and infectious disease specialist at the UNC School of Medicine, told the Charlotte Observer Editorial Board last week. “I’m a little worried about pulling back so quickly. When I saw the new order, I wondered if this was too soon.” 

The secondhighest infection rate among neighboring states was Georgia, at 8.63%Closely following that state was South Carolina, at 8.49%Both states have indoor restrictions. Georgia restricts inside gatherings to 50 peopleSouth Carolina’s has limited gatherings to 50% of the facility’s capacity, or 250 people, whichever is less.  

On March 5, Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina issued an executive order that lifts any local mask requirements inside restaurants and government buildings in the state. He also ended the practice of state employees working from home. 

“Now that the majority of South Carolinians are eligible to receive the vaccine, and infections and hospitalizations have dropped significantly, state agency heads may safely bring back the last group of state employees working remotely,” McMaster said. 

Tennessee has neither a state required mask mandate nor a limit on the number of people who can gather. The state has simply advised citizens to “exercise good faith judgment.”  

“Many think a statewide mandate would improve mask-wearing, many think it would have the opposite effect,” Governor Bill Lee said. “This has been a heavily politicized issue. Please do not get caught up in that and don’t misunderstand my belief in local government on this issue. Masks work and I want every Tennessean to wear one.  

Clubs have remained open in Tennesseeand restaurants and bars have been allowed customers inside without social distancing. Schools also have not closed 

The governor’s first lady, Maria Lee, tested positive for the virus in mid-December. 

Khalil Howard of Charlotte is a student in the James L. Knight School of Communication, which provides the Queens University News Service in support of local community news. 

This story was produced by the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of six media companies working together in an effort started by the Solutions Journalism Network and funded by The Knight Foundation.