Days after Gov. Larry Hogan issued an order aiming to block Montgomery County, Maryland, from keeping private and independent schools closed until Oct. 1 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, county leaders say they haven’t rescinded their health directive, and they’re still reviewing Hogan’s order.
“We are continuing to evaluate the impact of the governor’s executive order on the directive that we put out there,” Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles told reporters during an online news briefing Wednesday. “And once that process has been completed, we will take the necessary actions and update and announce those accordingly.”
As it currently stands, the Aug. 1 directive ordering nonpublic schools to stay closed until Oct. 1 “has not been rescinded,” Gayles said.
And, he added later, “Regardless of how that shakes out from, you know, the legal perspective or that kind of thing, we again remain committed to putting in practices and procedures that are keeping our residents safe. And we will continue to look at the complement of options that we have available in order to make sure that that is done and that is accomplished.”
In a statement later Wednesday, Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci said, “The governor has made himself clear: private and parochial schools deserve the same opportunity public schools have had to make reopening decisions based on public health guidelines.”
Ricci echoed Hogan’s comments earlier this week, calling the county’s directive “overly broad and inconsistent with the powers intended to be delegated to the county health officer.”
Gayles has cited the need to protect students, teachers and parents as the rationale for keeping nonpublic schools closed.
Montgomery County Public Schools has already announced it will have virtual classes starting this fall and lasting through at least January 2021.
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Hogan first issued a statement over the weekend saying he disagreed with the county’s decision. Then, on Monday, he issued an emergency order prohibiting local health departments from making decisions about closing schools.
Hogan said local school systems have the authority to make reopening decisions.
During the online briefing, County Executive Marc Elrich said he was “shocked” by Hogan’s order.
“I didn’t think it was appropriate,” he said. “I don’t think it’s supported by data. It makes no sense.”
Elrich added, “The fact that he felt it necessary to do that, rather than let us continue to come up with what we think are the best and safest solutions for people, is beyond me.”
Elrich said he has not spoken to the governor about the order but that he would raise the issue Wednesday during a call with the governor’s staff.
“I will be sure to at least let them know how I feel about it. Because I’m not going to waste that opportunity to express my feelings on this,” Elrich said.
Gayles said it will only be safe for schools to reopen when the county sees sustained lower levels of community spread and lower daily caseloads. Though new cases are down from a few months ago, the county is still averaging 70 to 80 new coronavirus cases a day, he said.
“We have made significant progress in Montgomery County … But we have not achieved that here in our county,” Gayles said. “We’ve not achieved that in our region.”
The idea behind keeping private schools closed until Oct. 1 is to see if the county can get to lower caseloads, he added.
“One thing that I think has been lost in this conversation — and it is it is a little frustrating — is that the purpose behind what we’re doing is to keep kids safe, and to keep staff members safe and family members at home,” Gayles said.
Private-school parents file suit, say directive ‘creating continued chaos’
Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed in federal court by parents of private school students as well as two private schools — the Avalon School in Silver Spring and the Brookewood School in Kensington — is set for a hearing before U.S. District Judge George J. Hazel on Aug. 14 at 10 a.m.
The lawsuit seeks a preliminary injunction blocking the county from enforcing its directive.
The lawsuit names Gayles, Elrich and the county as defendants.
“The Health Officer’s order is the only one of its kind in Maryland – or the country – which targets religious and private school classroom instruction for closure,” according to a news release from Timothy F. Maloney, an attorney representing the parents who sued. “The Health Officer issued this order while allowing restaurants, bars, day care facilities, colleges to remain open. There have been no COVID-19 reported cases in Montgomery County religious and private schools.”
Since Hogan issued his emergency order Monday, the group said Gayles “has been openly insubordinate” in refusing to rescind it and is “creating continued chaos and confusion for thousands of Montgomery County families and the schools they have chosen.”
No more late-night booze for dine-in restaurant customers
During the county news briefing, officials also discussed recent changes to the county’s coronavirus restrictions.
On Tuesday, the Montgomery County Council approved an amended executive order from Elrich lifting coronavirus restrictions on some businesses, such as tanning salons, nail salons and tattoo parlors, and tightening restrictions in some areas. For example, the revised order prohibits restaurants and bars from serving alcohol to dine-in customers after 10 p.m.
“So, if people who are sitting there and enjoying a meal and they … want yet another drink, they can order the drinks, but the drinks have to leave when they leave,” Elrich said.
Elrich said the changes to coronavirus restrictions are based on data from the state’s contact tracers, which indicated indoor diners have higher incidences of physical contact and limited social distancing later in the evening.
He also noted that Baltimore City has curtailed indoor entirely in the wake of rising cases, and Anne Arundel County has also limited late-night alcohol purchases by dine-in customers.
Elrich rejected the suggestion that because restrictions on tattoo parlors and tanning salons were being lifted that meant private schools should open their doors as well.
“You know, you get a haircut, a massage, a tattoo — you’re in and out. You are not spending five or six hours in rooms with limited air circulation,” Elrich said.
He added later, “There’s just no equivalency between getting a massage or getting your fingernails or toes done, and sitting in a room all day long.”
‘They turned Ocean City into a COVID boom’
Overall, the numbers on the county’s COVID-19 dashboard are trending in the right direction.
According to figures released by the state, the seven-day average positivity rate in Maryland has now hit the lowest level since the pandemic hit the region — just north of 4%. It’s even lower in Montgomery County — 2.52%.
But county leaders stressed the positive numbers are only a result of their decision to move cautiously when it came to reopening.
“We have good numbers because of what we did,” Elrich said. “This is not like, you know, these numbers dropped out of the sky and suddenly cases in Montgomery County disappeared and went away. The reason we’ve been able to change our trajectory is because we chose a path that opted for maximum protection of our citizens. That’s the choice we made. And we based it on the medical evidence.”
Since Hogan announced a statewide reopening plan that allowed local jurisdictions to move more slowly in lifting coronavirus restrictions, “our numbers have tracked in one direction, and the numbers in the rest of the state have tracked in a different direction,” Elrich said.
“They’ve turned Ocean City into a COVID boom,” he added.
WTOP’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report.