Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday announced the easing of COVID-19-related limits on mass gatherings and certain other business and social activities in place since May 22.

Cooper called the relaxed restrictions “safer at home phase 2.5” and said it will start at 5 p.m. Friday. It’s possible because COVID-19 metrics “numbers are stable, and that’s positive,” he added.

At 5 p.m. Friday, the state’s limits on mass gatherings of all sizes will increase from 10 to 25 people indoors and from 25 to 50 people outdoors.

Playgrounds will be allowed to open, and museums and aquariums will be allowed to operate at 50% capacity. Gyms and indoor exercise facilities, such as yoga studios, martial arts and rock climbing, as well as skating rinks, bowling alleys, indoor basketball and volleyball, may open at 30% capacity.

The capacities of restaurants and nail salons under phase two remain unchanged at 50%.

Bars, nightclubs, movie theaters, indoor entertainment facilities, amusement parks and dance halls will remain closed under phase 2.5.

“Until we have a vaccine or a reliable cure, the three Ws (wear a mask, wait 6 feet apart, wash hands) are with us for a while,” said Cooper.

Also on Tuesday, Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, issued an order allowing outdoor visitation at nursing homes or skilled nursing facilities. The order is effective at 5 p.m. Friday and expires on Sept. 22.

To participate, nursing homes must meet several requirements, including, but not limited, not having a current outbreak and having a testing plan, having updated written infection control or preparedness plan for COVID-19 and having adequate personal protective equipment.

On Monday, Cooper extended one of his executive orders to Oct. 2—the banning of alcohol sales for on-site consumption after 11 p.m. It was set to expire Monday night but was extended to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Phase two is part of Cooper’s three-part plan to reopen businesses and resume social activities during the pandemic. He announced earlier that phase two was set to expire on Friday, Sept. 11.

He has pushed back the timetable for moving into the final phase three times, saying infections and virus-related hospitalizations and deaths were still trending upward and hadn’t stabilized enough.

Gyms, bars and entertainment venues, including bowling alleys and wedding reception sites, all have remained closed since late March under state orders.

Such businesses have turned to the general assembly and the courts in their fight to reopen, but Cooper vetoed all bills that sought to undo his shutdown orders, and a group of bowling alleys were the only businesses to win an injunction in court over the shutdown orders.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Wilkes County Health Department on Monday reported two more COVID-19-related deaths of Wilkes residents. One was a person in his/her 40s, the county’s youngest virus-related death so far, who died Friday. The other death, on Monday, was a person in his/her 70s who had been a resident of Westwood Hills Nursing and Rehabilitation in Wilkesboro. The confirmed case total at Westwood Hills now is 115, with 10 deaths. As of Tuesday, Wilkes County’s case total was 1,046, with 23 deaths.

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