Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman announced Monday that masks will soon be required indoors at all county-owned buildings, regardless of people’s vaccination status and, starting next month, all county employees will need to either show proof of vaccination or take weekly COVID-19 tests before reporting to work.
Pittman said the steps are necessary to combat a rising virus caseload driven by the more contagious delta variant in the Maryland county. But he said his message was not “doom and gloom” and continued a call for residents to get vaccinated.
The new mask rules for county buildings, which includes libraries, senior centers and office buildings, go into effect Thursday.
The vaccination requirement for workers employed by the county, which is modeled on a plan for the federal workforce announced last week by President Joe Biden, begins Monday, Sept. 13. Employees who are not vaccinated will need to provide their supervisors with a negative test on a weekly basis to report to work, Pittman said.
“I’ve spoken to many of our department heads and union leaders about this, and while we understand that there will be some resistance, we expect that most of our employees will welcome this news,” Pittman said at a news conference Monday morning.
The changes in county rules follow guidance last week from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending a return to indoor mask-wearing regardless of vaccination status in areas experiencing “substantial” transmission of COVID-19 amid a nationwide surge in cases driven by the delta variant.
Anne Arundel County reached that threshold — greater than 50 total cases per 100,000 residents in the previous seven days — on Thursday.
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The CDC said it based its retooled mas recommendations on new data showing that while the COVID-19 vaccines still provide a strong level of protection from becoming ill, it’s possible for even vaccinated people to spread the virus.
“In other words, we need the masks to prevent the delta variant from using healthy vaccinated people as carriers,” Pittman said.
As county executive, Pittman does not have the authority to mandate private businesses to require masks. An order from Gov. Larry Hogan earlier in the pandemic, that has since expired, allowed county leaders to mandate masks in private businesses.
But Pittman said he hoped private businesses would follow the county’s lead in implementing mask requirements.
Regarding the plan to require workers to be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing, Pittman acknowledged rolling it out will be complicated, but pointed to the Biden administration’s plan for the federal workforce.
“We’re following the federal government’s lead as a means of protecting our public servants and setting an example to other employers,” Pittman said.
In response to questions from reporters, Pittman said he believed it’s possible the Food and Drug Administration would grant full authorization to at least one of the COVID-19 vaccines by September, which could lead to a wave of private businesses mandating vaccinations for their workers come the fall.
To residents who have only recently come to feel a sense of returning to normal, Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman, the county’s health officer, acknowledged, “It’s tough for us to be in this position after everything we’ve done to protect ourselves. But as COVID changes, we have to adapt what we do to stay safe.”
Pittman and other county officials also sought to reassure county residents that new mask rules and vaccination requirements do not necessarily mean that even more restrictive measures are on the way.
Matt Power, the county’s chief administrative officer, described the county’s new mask rules as “business as usual with a mask.”
The county is among the top three in Maryland for getting its residents vaccinated. Already, 70% of residents 12 and older have received at least one shot. But Pittman urged more work to get to the 30% of eligible residents who remain unvaccinated.
“We are fully capable of vaccinating everyone who is currently not vaccinated before the fall weather comes, before flu season, before COVID surge season,” Pittman said. “In other words, we can stop this thing with no new restrictions; no more threats to our economy, and very little disruption to our families. So please, please find someone who is on the fence or reluctant to get that vaccination vaccine and beg them, plead with them. Warn them how deadly the delta variant is and get them vaccinated — save someone’s life.”