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Gov. Roy Cooper may soon ease occupancy restrictionsfrom large, outdoor venues such as Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

RALEIGH — College and professional sports teams in North Carolina may soon be allowed to host a few thousand fans in outdoor stadiums, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Tuesday.

If the state’s coronavirus numbers continue to improve or remain flat, Cooper said he plans to ease the occupancy restrictions for large outdoor entertainment venues starting on Oct. 2. That includes ECU’s Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville.

Places that can seat more than 10,000 people outside would be able to operate at significantly reduced capacity, while adhering to the recommended 6 feet of physical distancing.

“We plan to take another step toward Phase 3 in the coming days if our progress holds,” Cooper said. “That step will mean larger outdoor event venues will be able to open at 7 percent capacity starting next Friday, Oct. 2.”

Under the updated executive order Cooper plans to announce next week, the Carolina Panthers, whose stadium can seat more than 75,000 people, would be able to host over 5,000 fans. East Carolina’s home game against Central Florida on Saturday will be restricted to 350 people, but the Oct. 17 match against Navy could host up to 3,500.

Cooper on Tuesday also announced that small businesses like bars that have experienced extraordinary disruption due to COVID-19 may benefit from a $40 million relief program to help offset fixed costs like rent, mortgage interests and utility bills.

The N.C. Mortgage, Utility and Rent Relief program administered by the Department of Commerce, can provide up to $20,000 in relief per qualifying business location. Applicants from certain sectors that have not been able to operate during the COVID period may apply for up to two of their locations.

“Small businesses are the backbone of our economy — powering our local communities and giving back in so many ways. They deserve our support, and this new initiative can help them weather this tough time,” Cooper said.

Applicants can apply for up to four months of mortgage interest or rent expenses and utility expenses. Applications should open next week and will be handled on a first-come, first-served basis. Applicants must certify that they were closed during the period April 1 through July 31; they expect to be able to operate after the COVID crisis has passed; and they have not been reimbursed by any other federal source.

Eligible applicants include: amusement parks, banquet halls with catering staff; bars, taverns, night clubs and cocktail lounges; bingo parlors; bowling alleys; dance halls; fitness and recreation centers; movie theaters and museums.

The commerce department is offering webinars and additional information on the program at

The Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday also launched a COVID-19 Exposure Notification app called SlowCOVIDNC. The app will help North Carolinians slow the spread of the virus by alerting them when they may have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

State officials said it leverages Google and Apple’s Exposure Notification System to alerts users who have the app if they have been in close contact with an individual who later tests positive for COVID-19. It is voluntary to download and use and designed to enhance the state’s existing contact tracing efforts. The app can be downloaded for free through the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store.

The UNC System has announced is helping promote the statewide rollout the app by encouraging faculty, staff and students at constituent institutions including ECU to download and activate it.

SlowCOVIDNC was designed with user privacy and safety first in mind, officials said. The app never collects or processes any location or personally identifiable information. In addition, it allows users to opt-out at multiple checkpoints. Individuals who test positive will not be identified.

Because evidence suggests that COVID-19 spreads even before infected individuals show symptoms, health officials agree that contact tracing efforts need to be fast and efficient. This digital app will help increase speed and scale, expanding the reach and effectiveness of the state’s contact tracing efforts.

During Tuesday’s news conference, the governor also said he would get a COVID-19 vaccine once the Food and Drug Administration approves it and it’s his turn to receive it after essential workers.

In the meantime, he wants North Carolinians to get flu shots in preparation for a possible surge in coronavirus spread during the fall and winter months, which many infectious disease experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, have predicted.

“We’ve got to make sure that we continue our efforts getting people vaccinated, not only for COVID-19 when it comes but all other diseases that are out there,” Cooper said.

North Carolina reported a coronavirus positivity rate on Tuesday approaching the state’s goal of 5 percent, with 5.4 percnet of COVID-19 tests coming back positive. The rate was as low as 4.6 percent last week.

The state’s daily case count has steadily declined since the start of September, while the number of active hospitalizations in the state has held steady around 900.

New daily cases rose on Tuesday to 1,168 from 800 the day before. The number in Pitt County rose from 30 to 37. About 7 percent of tests were coming back positive, according to DHHS.

Contact Bobby Burns at and 329.9572.