RALEIGH — Stating “pandemics cannot be partisan,” North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday defended his eased stay-at-home order as criticism mounted from elected Republican officials and demonstrators who gather weekly outside his home.

Cooper’s altered COVID-19 order, which took effect Friday, allowed more businesses to open to customers as long as social distancing rules are followed. But barber shops, movie theater and gyms remain closed, and restaurants still can’t offer dine-in meals.

And despite pressure from GOP state senators and some county sheriffs, the governor is keeping narrow the new exceptions for churches to hold services indoors.

That leaves many religious communities left only with meeting outside if more than 10 people want to gather.

Cooper said the decisions are based on the premise that people gathering indoors and sitting are at higher risk to spread or catch the virus than those outside or walking indoors. He also said there was little chance the state would ease restrictions further before May 22, citing time to review case and hospitalization data following the first step of his three-phase plan.

“We’re going to rely on the science and the facts to tell us when we need to reopen,” Cooper told reporters. “I know that people are hurting because of this virus, and I know that our economy is hurting because of this virus. But the health of our people and the health of our economy go hand and hand.”

The Republican members of the Council of State — six of the 10 elected executive branch officials — wrote Cooper earlier Tuesday seeking information why specific industries aren’t being allowed to open. They say while other Southern states ease restrictions for eateries, barber shops and salons, those in North Carolina are in danger of closing permanently.

North Carolina health officials reported there have been 15,350 positive COVID-19 cases as of Tuesday morning and 577 related deaths, an increase of 27 compared to Monday. Nursing home residents have now accounted for more than half of the deaths, with 16 homes now recording at least 10 deaths, according to Department of Health and Human Services data.

The council members said the state is faring better in cases and deaths on a per-capita basis compared to the rest of the nation.

“There are numerous ways to protect lives and livelihoods at the same time while allowing healthy North Carolina citizens to return to work and giving them the ability to provide for themselves and their families,” wrote the council members, including Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. He is running against Cooper for governor this fall.

Separately, Republican Sens. Kathy Harrington and Carl Ford panned Cooper’s decision on church services as unconstitutional because they said “it treats churches differently than commercial establishments, and it treats some religions differently than others.”

Churches across the state held services last weekend in defiance of Cooper, according to the North Carolina Values Coalition, a conservative Christian group.

Cooper said he was mindful of First Amendment rights for religion but hoped that ministers would make the health of their parishioners a priority.

Otherwise, he pointed out that he’s been talking regularly the White House and signed a bipartisan COVID-19 funding bill at the General Assembly earlier this month. “Pandemics cannot be partisan,” the governor said.

The criticisms came as another weekly ReopenNC demonstration opposing Cooper’s stay-at-home order took place.

More than 300 people marched and gathered outside the Executive Mansion demanding that he lift the order completely.

Maria Winslett, 35, of Fort Bragg, held a sign that read “Church is Essential.” Winslett said the online services and small group meetings that her Baptist church in Fayetteville are offering can’t address the needs of all members.

“I don’t think that government should be able to place limitations on the churches,” said Winslett, who attended with her children ages two to 12. “I believe that any sort of limitation is an overreach of power in regards to worship and work.”

A counter-protest took to the skies. A plane flew overhead with a banner reading: “FEWER GRAVES IF WE REOPEN IN WAVES.”

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