Hogan: Maryland to relax stay-home order starting May 15

Fish Taco restaurant workers talk to a customer, left, in front of the restaurant in Bethesda, Md., Monday, May 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said Wednesday that the stay-at-home order originally put in place to deal with the coronavirus pandemic would be lifted on Friday.

Citing a plateauing case count, Hogan said the Maryland coronavirus advisory committee suggested the state move into Phase One of the “Maryland Strong: Roadmap to Recovery” plan.

In Phase One, the following restrictions have been eased, beginning 5 p.m. Friday:

  • The stay-at-home order has been modified to a “safer-at-home” advisory.
  • Retail businesses can reopen up to 50% capacity with strict safety precautions.
  • Manufacturing can resume operations with the state issuing guidelines encouraging multiple shifts and physical distancing, among other safety precautions.
  • Some personal services, such as barber shops and hair salons, may reopen at 50% capacity, and by appointment only.
  • Churches and houses of worship may begin to hold religious services. Outdoor services are strongly recommended, and indoor services will be limited to 50% capacity, with requirements for masks and social distancing.
  • Restaurants, movie theaters and gyms will remain closed during Phase One.

Hogan said he strongly advised reopening businesses to take the “Maryland Strong Back to Business Pledge” online and post it on their storefront as a reassurance to customers that businesses are doing everything they can to operate in a safe manner.

The governor said that county leaders who do not feel comfortable entering Phase One of the recovery plan will be able to delay when their municipalities ease restrictions.

“I assured our county leaders that as we begin to slowly and cautiously lift restrictions at the state level, that we are providing for a flexible, community-based approach, which empowers individual county leaders to make decisions regarding the timing of Stage One reopenings in their individual jurisdictions,” Hogan said.

Both Prince George’s and Montgomery counties — which are the two hardest-hit counties in the state — have expressed concerns about reopening, Hogan said.

Prince George’s County has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the state, and Hogan said that County Executive Angela Alsobrooks made it clear to him that they were not ready to begin the reopening process.

“They do have a serious problem — they do have our highest infection rate and our highest number of cases,” Hogan said. “We understand exactly the issue she’s dealing with; we’re trying to provide support. We’re in constant communication; we had a great conversation. We’ll work collaboratively with her, and we do not want them to do anything that they feel is unsafe for their county.”

Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks plans to hold a news conference at 11 a.m. Thursday.

In reaction to Hogan’s announcement, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich tweeted Wednesday that the county was not ready to reopen.

Elrich will hold a news conference at noon Thursday.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski and Baltimore City Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young issued a statement Wednesday in response to the governor’s decision. The statement notes that the city of Baltimore and Baltimore County are still seeing high rates of infection.

Olszewski and Young said they will take the next 24 hours to make a decision regarding next steps for the area.

“We acknowledge that this will not be welcome news to all of our residents,” the statement reads. “Individuals and businesses continue to make real sacrifices, and those sacrifices are preventing the spread of a deadly virus. However, rushing to reopen in our large, densely populated jurisdictions jeopardizes the lives of our neighbors and loved ones.”

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said Howard County does not have the “building blocks in place” to reopen.

Ball said:

Our testing capacity has increased; however, we have only tested about 2% of our Howard County population, or nearly 6,000 individuals to date. Based on modeling to understand full exposure, we need to test up to 6,500 individuals a week. The Governor has demonstrated a commitment to acquire more testing, however these tests will likely go to larger jurisdictions first. Additionally, we do not yet have a robust contact tracing operation, we have 11 out of 45 positions currently filled, and need more time to achieve 15 contact tracers per 100,000 residents. Howard County has also not seen a decrease in cases or hospitalizations over the last 14 days, and borders six jurisdictions, a majority of which have significant case rates.”

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman said his county had not reached all of the requirements laid out in the recovery plan to begin reopening.

Pittman said that while Anne Arundel was “head and shoulders above” the rest of the state in terms of contact tracing, they had not yet seen a drop in cases and hospitalizations since mid-April, the county did not have a 14-day supply of PPE, and testing capacity is growing, “but much too slowly.”

Pittman said that he would review Hogan’s recommendations for reopening and discuss which ones the county should adopt with the Anne Arundel County Department of Health.

In Charles County, a special meeting to discuss reopening the county will be held at 4:15 p.m.  Thursday. It will be a virtual meeting.

Elrich: Up to local jurisdictions to make decisions

Montgomery County officials said Hogan gave them the OK to go their own way ahead of the governor’s announcement Wednesday evening of the gradual easing of pandemic-related restrictions.

County Executive Marc Elrich said during a news briefing Wednesday afternoon that Hogan held a call with county executives across the state on Tuesday. In that call, Hogan didn’t share any new details — or a definite timeline — about the reopening, Elrich said.

“But he did emphasize for us was that he was leaving it to local jurisdictions to make decisions about how far to open and that we wouldn’t need to ask for a waiver,” Elrich said. “We wouldn’t need his permission. Nobody would have to declare they were defying the governor.”

Elrich said Hogan understands “that we will make the best decisions for our jurisdictions. And he acknowledged that the situation in some parts of the state is dramatically different than it is in our more urban counties.”

Montgomery County is still seeing rising numbers of COVID-19 cases — as well as deaths associated with the virus.

“I feel that we’re more vulnerable, and we’ve got case loads that are still growing,” Elrich said.

As it stands now, Montgomery County accounts for 20% of the state’s total COVID-19 caseload — nearly 7,300 cases out of more than 34,800 total cases in Maryland, according to state health department data. That’s the second-highest number of cases after Prince George’s County.

Of the 1,694 deaths recorded in Maryland, 386 — or about 22% of the state’s total — have been in Montgomery County. That’s the highest number in the state.

Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, said a “significant number” of the deaths in the county have come from the county’s long-term care facilities and nursing homes.

Overall, Elrich said Montgomery County still hasn’t seen the trends called for in federal guidance on lifting coronavirus restrictions recommending at least 14 days of declining case numbers.

Elrich’s suggestion that the county would more slowly lift coronavirus restrictions is in line with the approach taken by other jurisdictions in the immediate D.C. metro area.

In D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser extended the stay-at-home order, which was set to expire May 15, through June 8.

In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam issued an executive order Tuesday allowing Northern Virginia counties to more slowly lift coronavirus restrictions when the rest of the state moves into Phase I of its reopening plan Friday.

Regarding a slower opening, Elrich said he understands business owners’ frustration, but he added, “There is no value in opening prematurely if it plunges us right back into this crisis again.”


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Montgomery County to roll out new testing hotline

At the news briefing Wednesday, Elrich and Gayles also discussed plans to ramp up testing, including the rollout of a special hotline for people experiencing symptoms or seeking a test.

Through the hotline, which is expected to launch by Thursday, residents will receive remote consultations with providers who can determine if they need to be tested — and can direct them to a county testing site for a free test.

“We realized that in our efforts to expand testing … a lot of testing was related to having a doctor,” Gayles said, adding, “The reality is many people were still locked out of the system because they didn’t have access to a primary care provider.”

Gayles said his office has heard of people without insurance or primary care providers who sought testing at urgent cares where, although the test itself was free, they were still being charged hundreds of dollars in visiting fees.

Elrich added, “We can’t afford to have anybody who might be sick walking away from the test because they can’t afford it.”

He said the county is still working to ramp up overall testing in the county. Earlier, the county was pursuing a plan to buy its own supply of test kits, but Elrich said those plans have shifted because the test kits being offered were either incomplete or the county didn’t have the equipment necessary to process those test kits.

The county is now signing contracts with some of the county’s biotech companies that already have testing capacity, testing instruments and the capacity to rapidly return results.

As overall capacity expands, the next step is rolling out some kind of mobile testing capacity.

“We’ve talked about bringing our testing out to the grocery stores and the Home Depot’s of the world, because we want to be able to test front-line workers there, as well as our own front-line workers,” Elrich said.

Montgomery County summer camps canceled

Separately Wednesday, the Montgomery County Recreation department announced it is canceling all of its summer camps and summer programs and working on “contingency plans for new camps in a COVID-19 environment.”

The department said it’s following state and county guidelines for the reopening of facilities and programs. If those guidelines change, it’s possible some summer camp activities could return as early as this year but with new safety standards in place.

“Our team is ready to provide services and welcome the community back to our facilities, but we will not do so until it is safe,” said Director Robin Riley in a statement. “Once we receive guidance from state officials, we will work closely with our local public health officials to determine the appropriate methods and timing to reopen our facilities and programs.”

With the cancellation of summer camps, the county said refunds will be issued.

In addition, facility rentals through May 31 have been canceled, and new registrations for summer activities and classes have been postponed.

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