RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- In a news briefing Tuesday, Gov. Roy Cooper announced that indoor gatherings would be subject to further restrictions as COVID-19 cases continue to spike across the state.
Though Phase 2.5 allowed groups of 25 people to gather indoors, Cooper announced he would tighten those restrictions to 10 people as the holiday season approaches.
"Science shows that the transmission of this virus is much greater indoors, and the more people that are gathered, the more easily this virus can spread," Cooper said during the news conference.
According to a report on COVID-19 clusters in North Carolina updated Monday afternoon, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has learned of 29 COVID-19 clusters stemming from social gatherings, resulting in 279 cases and two deaths. Health officials have repeatedly said the current spike in COVID-19 cases is being driven by gatherings among people who do not live in the same household.
The mass gathering limit, however, does not apply to religious services, as outlined in the extension of Phase 2. Monday's report noted that 100 COVID-19 clusters have been linked to religious gatherings, leading to 1,393 cases and 21 deaths. However, the report added that cases associated with religious gatherings decreased last week to the lowest level since August. Those attending religious services are still asked to stay socially distant and wear a face covering at all times during services.
Cooper's announcement also extends Phase 3 until December 4. No other aspects of the current phase will change -- outdoor gathering limits will remain at 50 people, bars and movie theaters will be allowed to remain open, and all businesses will be subject to capacity limits.
The announcement comes as North Carolina's COVID-19 metrics continue to worsen. According to NCDHHS, the seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases is at a record high -- far exceeding July's spike in COVID-19 cases. The percentage of positive tests rose to 7.5% as of Sunday -- much higher than the state's benchmark of 5% or less, where the metric was hovering for the month of September.
WATCH: Dr. Mandy Cohen discusses North Carolina's COVID-19 trends
"As frustrating and painful as it is, we must keep fighting a little while longer. We don't want to let the last eight months of sacrifices go to waste by dropping our guard or ignoring safety measures," Cooper said. "We've come too far to lose our focus now."
More than 1,100 people with COVID-19 have been in North Carolina hospitals for the past 30 days. While hospitals have not become overwhelmed, NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen has said some rural hospitals are strained for space.
"Thanksgiving is two weeks away," Gov. Cooper said. "North Carolinians are focused on how to celebrate amid this pandemic. There'll be usual concerns about who's carving the turkey and whether we're going to talk about politics. But we need everyone focused on how to keep safe."
With many North Carolinians planning gatherings with family and friends for Thanksgiving, health officials urged compliance with the 3 W's to prevent an even greater spike in COVID-19 following the holiday season.
"Even though this means changes to long-standing holiday traditions for many of us, take comfort in the fact that there is a light at the end of the tunnel," Cooper said. "With our continued dedication, by next Thanksgiving or sooner, this pandemic can be behind us."
During the news conference, Gov. Cooper also announced full-service restaurants seeking assistance during the pandemic can apply to the NC Department of Commerce for up to $20,000 as part of the Mortgage, Utility and Rent Relief Program (MURR).
Those businesses may apply for up to four months of rent or mortgage interest capped at $20,000 per location for up to two locations.
"This pandemic will end. A vaccine is in the final stages of development and the FDA has authorized a promising new treatment. Hope is on the horizon," Gov. Cooper added. "This pandemic will not last forever."