‘It’s not party time yet’: Montgomery County to delay move to Phase Three

Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, say they are not ready to lift coronavirus restrictions as part of the state’s Phase Three reopening plan. Instead, the county plans to continue lifting virus-related rules on a case-by-case basis.

“I won’t say we’re going to move into Phase Three,” County Executive Marc Elrich said during a briefing Wednesday. “We will continue to likely modify our Phase Two, which we’ve been doing all along.”

Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said his office will study the governor’s Phase Three plan and issue new guidelines by Friday, letting residents and businesses know about any new activities that could be allowed ahead of the Labor Day holiday.

Even though Gov. Larry Hogan moved the state to Phase Three starting Friday, local jurisdictions have the authority to move more slowly in lifting restrictions, and in each of the previous phases, Montgomery County has moved more slowly than the state as a whole.

The county executive said he is disappointed with Hogan’s announcement Tuesday of the latest relaxing of restrictions, under which all businesses are able to reopen — although with some capacity limits.

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“None of the elected officials in the state got consulted on this,” Elrich said. “Nobody asked us what do we know? What do we think? What are you hearing? What are you experiencing?”

Elrich said he believed the state’s decision-making is being driven by a desire to reopen businesses.

“I get the desire to reopen businesses, I would love to have the tax revenue,” Elrich said. “But I don’t want the tax revenue if the price to be paid is more sick people and more fatalities in our community. It is not worth it, if you can’t do it safely.”

Elrich said he’s concerned about other counties in Maryland continuing to lift restrictions too quickly, which could have a ripple effect in Montgomery County.

“We don’t exist in a vacuum … Our people go back and forth and across borders and, unfortunately, unlike Vegas, what happens someplace else doesn’t stay someplace else — you bring it home,” Elrich said.

Though the number of coronavirus cases in the county are down from a peak in late spring, and the test positivity rate in Montgomery County is now down to around 3% — compared to a peak of more than 34% in April — the number of cases has plateaued and shows no signs of consistently dropping, officials said.

“We’re not saying our cases have spiked up,” Gayles, the health officer, said. But what we are saying is we’ve plateaued over the last month … we haven’t seen a continued improvement in the numbers to suggest that we add on more activities.”

Gayles suggested the county wants to see numbers indicating a low or at most a moderate level of transmission of the virus in the count, which equates to between 10 cases up to 35 cases a day a day for a sustained period of time, he said.

In March, when schools were first closed and the first safety measures were first taken, the county was averaging about four cases a day, he said.

Some days recently, new cases in the county have spiked to more than 100.

“We are not in a place that I can say … let’s open the doors,” Elrich said. “It is not party time yet. It is not a time to relax. It is not a time to say ‘mission accomplished,’ as some famous person once said. None of those things are true. We’re making progress. That is true. But we’re not where we need to be.”

County Executive Angela Alsobrooks in neighboring Prince George’s County is set to discuss that county’s reopening plan in a news conference Thursday.

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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