RALEIGH — North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Tuesday he is curbing alcohol sales hours at restaurants starting later this week, a COVID-19 restriction to discourage late-night gatherings where health officials say social distancing isn’t happening.
However, the owner of a Greenville restaurant popular with college students worries the new rule will result in students hosting house parties without the social distancing measures enforced at licensed facilities.
Starting Friday, the eateries and other establishments offering drinks by the glass like distilleries and breweries will have to cut off sales at 11 p.m. State law usually allows sales until 2 a.m. The order doesn’t apply to retailers like grocery or convenience stores that sell beer and wine on the shelves.
Some local governments, Raleigh, Mecklenburg County and Chapel Hill among them, already had approved similar late-night bans after seeing examples of restaurant patrons failing to wear masks or to remain apart in the wee hours. More restrictive local limits on alcohol sales can remain in effect.
At a media briefing, Cooper said the move is needed as case numbers have increased among young people. College students from around the country will return to North Carolina schools next month. Cooper’s decision came on the same day North Carolina reported another record number of hospitalizations involving coronavirus patients, which is approaching 1,250.
“Slowing the spread of this virus requires targeted strategies that help lower the risk of transmission,” Cooper said. “We’ve seen case numbers increase among younger people, and prevention is critical to slowing the spread of the virus.”
States like South Carolina and Alabama also have moved up last call this month, attempting to stem the virus’ intensity.
“I think what they are worried about is restaurants that might operate as nightclubs until the late-morning hours,” said Brett Oliverio, owner of Sup Dogs, a restaurant neighboring East Carolina University’s campus that has operated until 1 a.m. during the weekends. “What I worry about is we are fully distanced and fully controlled and safe. Right now we are going to have to kick everybody out at 11 (p.m.), send them onto the grid, back onto campus, to house parties. Thirty thousand students piled on top of each other. I guess we are going to see what happens.”
While the state is trying to discourage restaurants operating as nightclubs, it almost appears it is encouraging house parties, he said.
The change will have a significant financial impact not only on Oliverio’s business, but on his staff’s earnings through tips.
“Right now there are no perfect answers,” Oliverio said.
Pitt Street Brewing Company closes at midnight, so taproom manager Mary Ann Ricks didn’t think the new curfew would create too many problems.
“It seems like the least we can do if that’s going to help,” Ricks said.
Since the brewery re-opened in late May, it has kept its occupancy at 50 percent of its normal indoor levels, giving customers indoors and in the backyard seating area plenty of room for social distancing, she said.
Standalone bars have remained shuttered since March under Cooper’s orders and will continue to be through at least Aug. 7. Restaurants have been able to operate their own bars inside their locations, however.
The move also doesn’t affect the government-run Alcoholic Beverage Control liquor stores, which already must close by 9 p.m.
More than 116,000 people in North Carolina have tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began, the state Department of Health and Human Services reported on Tuesday, with more than 1,800 deaths.
State Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said on Tuesday that case trends appear to be stabilizing, but more time is needed to review the data. While hospitalizations and case numbers remain high, she said, state hospitals still have adequate bed capacity. While the percentage of tests returning positive is falling, it’s still too high.
The overall number of completed tests in North Carolina has exceeded 1.6 million, but health officials said the pace of their completion has been slowed due to nationwide supply shortages.