COVID hospitalizations are at an all-time high; all prison inmates to be tested.

As North Carolina’s COVID-19 hospitalizations reached a high of 857 on Thursday, Gov. Roy Cooper and his staff strongly urged the public to wear masks to curb the spread of the disease.

At an afternoon news conference, Cooper also discussed the possibility that he would make masks mandatory in the near future, but he stopped short of saying he would.

"The mandatory nature of it is being considered and studied," Cooper said, adding he would have more information next week when the administration issues more comprehensive policy on the next steps the state will take to handle the ongoing pandemic.

Some North Carolina communities already require people to wear masks because of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, the state prison system has begun the process of testing all of its 31,200 inmates, Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee said at the news conference. This will take 60 days and cost about $3.3 million, he said. Burlington-based LabCorp has the contract to analyze the tests, he said.

There have been concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in county jails and state prisons. In a lawsuit that civil rights activists filed on behalf of several prison inmates, a Superior Court judge on June 8 ordered the state to make a plan to keep the inmates safe, WRAL reported.

Masks debate

The issue of wearing face masks has become controversial, even political.

Ashley Smith, the head of the ReOpen NC organization (which has protested against the restrictions Cooper set that closed businesses in an effort to slow the virus), said in a video on Facebook on Monday that any requirement to wear a mask would infringe on personal liberty and freedom.

Then Smith set fire to a mask for a "burn your mask challenge," and she urged others to make burning mask videos for social media.

"Hashtag your videos ‘IgnightFreedom,’ ‘ReOpenNC’," Smith said.

Cooper and state Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said masks make it harder for infected people — who might be unaware they are infected — to spread the virus to others.

"We want this to be second nature to people," Cooper said. "No. 1, it’s something everybody can do to pitch in to slow the spread of the virus. And No. 2, doing it doesn’t hurt the economy in any way."

Cooper acknowledged there are challenges in making an enforceable mandate to wear masks. A regulation must account for a variety of circumstances, such as people’s ages, people’s disabilities, and the locations that the masks should be required, he said.

"You just can’t snap your finger and say, ‘Hey, it’s a rule, everybody do it,’" Cooper said. "It’s got to be something that’s well thought-through, and something that will be effective with the least intrusion that we can have on people."

To persuade people to wear masks, Cooper said, soon there will be public service announcements with hockey players, race car drivers and restaurant owners encouraging people to do so.

Restrictions battle

The legislature on Thursday sent Cooper a bill that would allow bowling alleys, skating rinks and baseball stadiums to reopen with safety requirements. Another bill pending before Cooper would allow gyms, health clubs and bars to reopen, also with safety restrictions.

The governor criticized these bills.

"It’s pretty easy to vote for a bill that lifts a restriction when you don’t have to deal with the consequences," he said. "And I think it’s important for us to be thinking of the consequences of everything we do, and also local and state officials need to have the flexibility to react, which these pieces of legislation impede."

Cooper previously vetoed a bill to allow bars to reopen and ease the restrictions on restaurants.

As of Thursday morning, North Carolina has had 48,188 laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19, 693,678 tests had been reported, 1,333 new cases, and 857 people hospitalized with it. There have been 1,175 COVID deaths in the state, the governor said.

"As we dig into our data, we’re seeing that recent increases in our cases are really being driven largely by younger folks, people ages 25 to 49," Cohen, the Health and Human Services secretary, said.

Although younger people have a lower risk of a severe bout with COVID-19, they can still spread it to people at a higher risk of a bad case, Cohen said.

Paul Woolverton can be reached at or 910-261-4710.