Montgomery County, Maryland, is set to enter Phase Two of the lifting of COVID-19 safety regulations on Friday at 5 p.m., but officials on Wednesday emphasized caution as they provided details.
Saying the county had seen a “significant reduction in cases last week, per day,” County Executive Marc Elrich said, “We may be getting a handle on this.”
There have been two changes to the plan, Elrich said: Indoor and outdoor pools, which had been set to open only for lap swimming, can now open for other activities. Rules are still in place regarding capacity and cleaning, and swimmers must wear masks when they’re not in the water. Straight lap swimming is not the only permitted activity, but, he said, “It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be horsing around with each other.”
And though shopping malls will reopen, food courts will not, and shoppers can’t gather.
“They’re open for shopping, not socializing,” Elrich said. “Go to the stores you want to go to and shop.”
(County-run pools will not reopen Friday, however. Dr. Eric Stoddard, director of the county’s Emergency Management Agency, said that the county needs time to hire and train more than 600 workers, teaching them a new way of operating under the pandemic. When they do reopen, however, reservations will be taken and time limits will give more people a chance to spend some time at the pools.)
See the county’s full list of what changes in Phase Two.
- Sign up for WTOP alerts
- Latest coronavirus test results in DC, Maryland and Virginia
- Coronavirus FAQ: What you need to know
- Coronavirus resources: Get and give help in DC, Maryland and Virginia
- Northam moves to make Juneteenth a state holiday; no Phase 3 this week
- Bowser: DC Phase Two coronavirus reopening could start Monday
- What Loudoun County schools plan to do next school year
Masks and distancing
Two essential facets of protection against the virus – masks and social distancing – are not changing, Elrich said.
“The only reason we got to this point was physical distancing and face coverings. … We are not gonna relax that any time soon,” he said, adding, “We’re trying to avoid what has happened in other jurisdictions around the country.”
Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles agreed. “We have seen significant improvement,” he said, adding that new cases in the county were consistently under 100 per day, and often well under that. The percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive – a key factor in the lifting of restrictions – was at a rolling average of 7.6%, down from a high of around 30% in early May.
That said, Gayles added, “We still need to be vigilant, if not more vigilant” in Phase Two, which permits activities that involve some risk.
Asked when officials might start considering Phase Three, Gayles said it was far too early to tell.
But, he added, it’s not a linear process: Just continuing the rate of decrease in cases, positive tests and hospitalizations that the county has seen so far is not enough.
“We need to see even more significant decrease,” Gayles said.
Elrich said the rules on wearing masks come from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s executive order, which provides for up to a $5,000 fine and a one-year prison sentence.
“We’re not starting there, but I guarantee you if we encounter businesses” flouting the regulations, “they will not operate. It’s that simple.”
He added that sticking with mask requirements was likely good business sense as well: “People may be less ready to enter businesses than businesses are to reopen.”
Elrich also announced a jobs program for young people in the county related to recovery from the pandemic.
The COVID Corps will be hiring people ages 16 to 23 to support the county’s health and economic response in several ways. In a statement from the county government, the categories for the jobs, which pay $14 an hour, were detailed:
- Food security, helping the county and the school department package, distribute and deliver meals to vulnerable populations;
- Community outreach and translation with the Montgomery County Volunteer Center and other nonprofits;
- Tech Connect, teaching and mentoring seniors how to use technology and online resources and opportunities to stay connected;
- Operational recovery, helping county departments prepare for employees’ return to work; and
- Special projects, responding to urgent, unforeseen requests.
All selected candidates must successfully pass a criminal background investigation, which will include state, federal and sexual offender background checks.
Asked when protections on evictions might expire, Elrich said they were in Hogan’s emergency order. The protections expire when the order does, and no one knows when that will be.
Elrich said he wants the order to stay in place “a long time,” and for the protections to last past the end of the order.
Residents and businesses can’t pay rent, and landlords and lenders need to be flexible. “Everybody’s taking a haircut in this thing,” he said.
Elrich said he has asked the Office of the County Attorney whether he can issue a similar order for the county, and was told “I cannot.”