RALEIGH — N.C. residents are now mandated to stay at home unless going out for essentials, according to an executive order signed by N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper on March 27.

“To continue our aggressive battle to slow the spread of COVID-19, today I have signed a stay at home order for the entire state of N.C.,” Cooper said. “Enforcement begins at 5 p.m. Monday, but we encourage you to start as soon as possible.” The governor said the order is in effect for 30 days; violations are punishable by a Class II misdemeanor.

“Stay at home unless you need to leave for job, food, medicine, outdoor exercise or to help someone,” Cooper said. “It’s what we have to do to save lives. It has the force of law.”

Cooper asked citizens to think of others in their efforts to limit the spread of the virus, and that he was told by the Centers for Disease Control that North Carolina now has widespread transmission of COVID-19.

The order bans gatherings of more than 10 people, Cooper said, and directs people to stay at least six feet away from each other, which he called “physical distancing.”

Cooper stressed physical distancing of six feet or more for essential business.

When asked about enforcement, Cooper said he's asking law enforcement to encourage people to abide by the order, saying that people who flagrantly violate the order can be charged by local district attorneys.

N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said that the numbers so far paint a sobering picture of the effects of the virus.

“We don’t have the luxury of time; we must do what we need to stop the spread of the virus,” Cohen said.

Cohen said many people getting sick at once could overwhelm the medical system.

“Our best weapon is social distancing,” Cohen said. “Our actions, your actions can save lives. ... There are many things that are not within our control right now. It’s up to us to act where we can. We can do this. We are strong. And we are in this together.”

N.C. Emergency Management Coordinator Mike Sprayberry said that a frequently asked questions document would be sent out to help citizens and businesses understand the order.

Sprayberry said that businesses allowed to remain open under the executive order do not need any additional permits or credentials.

“We are also working to prepare for the surge of patients expected at our hospitals,” Sprayberry said. “We are identifying facilities that can serve as overflow for our hospitals, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is helping prepare facilities."

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