Maryland will be implementing a stricter face mask requirement and issuing a travel advisory for states that are seeing surges in cases of the novel coronavirus, Gov. Larry Hogan said in an update Wednesday.
At 5 p.m. Friday, face masks will be required inside public buildings and at outdoor events if it is not possible to maintain a safe physical distance of 6 feet between individuals.
“This expansion of the masking order is an action that is both fact-based, apolitical and solidly grounded in science,” Hogan said. “And while it can be an inconvenience — especially in the heat — wearing a mask is the single best mitigation strategy that we have to fight the virus.”
Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said that Hogan’s mask order is an “excellent step” and that it’s good to have uniformity across the state.
“Montgomery County, we enforced a similar face covering mandate back in June because we felt it was necessary to require folks to do that to keep people safe when they’re moving about both in indoor and outdoor settings,” Gayles said.
Gayles also believes that there should be a federal standard that should be applied across the board and said that this kind of direction should be coming from President Donald Trump’s administration.
The states that have been placed on the travel advisory are Florida, Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, Arizona, Alabama, South Carolina, Nebraska and Idaho. Marylanders are being advised to avoid these states if possible, and to immediately get tested if traveling back to Maryland from one of those areas.
Maryland’s mask order expansion and travel advisory follows similar moves by leaders in D.C. and Virginia.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser issued a new mask order last week as officials voiced concern over an upswing in new coronavirus cases. This week, she ordered travelers into Washington from over half the country to self-quarantine due to a widespread escalation in new coronavirus cases.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ordered new limits on gatherings and indoor dining and drinking in the Hampton Roads area Tuesday after a surge in COVID-19 cases there. Northam had ordered mask coverings to be worn in public back in May.
There are 21 states that the federal government has deemed “Red Zones” due to their high case numbers. Many of these states are being advised to close parts of their economies to control the spread of the disease.
Hogan said while Maryland was not on the list, it was “not immune” to seeing a surge in cases if the CDC health guidelines are not followed closely.
Number of confirmed cases: 86,285 (+761)
COVID-19-related and probable deaths: 3,478 (+20)
Currently hospitalized: 571 (+27)
Recoveries: 5,592 (=)
Total number of tests: 1,160,443 (+15,747)
Hogan said though Maryland is not dealing with the sharp spike in case numbers that many other states around the U.S. have seen in recent weeks, the recent rise in positivity rates warranted a pause on further reopening plans.
Maryland reported 761 new cases on Wednesday.
Of the newly reported cases, Hogan said that health department data shows that 56% of those testing positive for COVID-19 were under the age of 40. The positivity rate for Marylanders under 35 has been on the rise in recent weeks, according to Hogan.
“Marylanders that are under the age of 35 are now testing positive at a rate that is 76.8% higher than the positivity rate for Marylanders age 35 and older,” Hogan said. “We are concerned, and we are closely monitoring hospitalizations.”
Hogan asked Marylanders to answer the phone if they see an incoming call that is marked “MD COVID.”
“[Contact tracing’s] effectiveness relies on the cooperation and participation of Marylanders,” Hogan said. “In fact, without your cooperation, it can’t work. It cannot save lives and it cannot help Maryland keep open for business. So, if you get a call from COVID-19, it’s very important that you answer the call and that you cooperate.”
Through contact tracing, Hogan said that the state found the number one activity where Marylanders picked up the virus was at family gatherings. The data showed that of those who tested positive for the virus, 44% said they had attended a family gathering, 23% attended house parties and 21% attended outdoor events.
“For most of us, I think there’s a false sense of security when you’re spending time with family or friends — especially if you’re at home or you’re at a backyard barbecue,” Hogan said. “I’m guilty of this myself. I think it’s very easy to feel comfortable thinking that just because you haven’t gone out to what we’ve thought of as a high-risk activity that you’re perfectly safe.”
“I know I’ve been very careful — keeping the mask on back and forth from home to work, going nowhere,” Hogan said. “But, even I am guilty of this: I had my daughters and sons-in-law and four grandkids sitting in a room, watching movies with the kids, eating popcorn, hanging out, eating dinner. Not thinking that, y’know, my granddaughter’s going to camp, that daughters and sons-in-law are going to work, and we could have been spreading the virus.”
Data gathered from contact tracing also identified high-risk locations, according to Hogan.
More than half of those who tested positive likely picked up the virus while working outside their homes. Shopping at retail stores was next highest, at 39%; dining outdoors at a restaurant accounted for 23%; and indoor dining accounted for yet another 23%.
Hogan said the state sees its own rising rates of the virus infections as a “stop sign” for reopening plans and will not be moving forward until the numbers show signs of stabilizing.
Maryland is currently in Phase Two of its reopening plan, and Hogan said that no plans would be made to move the state into Phase Three “until it is safe, prudent and thoroughly backed by the data and medical science to move forward.”
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Also at Wednesday’s news briefing, Maryland’s Deputy Health Secretary Fran Phillips announced that she would be retiring from her position.
Dr. Jinlene Chan, currently the assistant health secretary, will be filling the role of deputy health secretary going forward.
Philips, who returned to the role in 2018 after a brief retirement, has been a major presence in the state’s response to the pandemic, often going before the public and offering information on the virus as it came to light.
Hogan said Phillips agreed to come out of retirement in 2018 to fill the role, but had only planned to stay there for one year. That year turned into two, and Maryland then found itself in a pandemic. Phillips stayed on for an additional five months to help coordinate the state’s response.
“I’ll always be proud of Maryland’s response to this pandemic, and proud of serving on the Maryland Department of Health team of public health champions,” Phillips said.
“We have made great progress, but have quite a way to go,” she said. “So, Marylanders, I’m talking to you: We need to stick together.”
“We need to honor each other by wearing masks, by keeping our distance, by choosing to curtail in-person activities and by making smart decisions. We can put ourselves in control of this virus. What we choose to do today will save lives and keep Maryland strong.”
For her contributions, Hogan presented Phillips with an award recognizing her efforts in the department.
WTOP’s Ken Duffy contributed to this report.