Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, say they are ready for voters to cast their ballots in person and have rolled out a number of changes and coronavirus-related safety measures designed to keep them safe.
“We’ve been preparing for this for months,” said Dr. Earl Stoddard, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, during an online news briefing Wednesday.
Among the changes: installing Plexiglas barriers at voting sites.
A total of 39 voting centers will be open on Election Day, which is Nov. 3, and open for any voter regardless of where they live. Early voting starts Oct. 26 at 11 sites.
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“The layouts of all the facilities — Public Health will be at walk-throughs of several of the facilities to try and point out any last-minute things that we might see,” Stoddard said.
In addition, election judges are being trained on safety measures, Stoddard said.
Voters are required to wear face masks, and Stoddard said they should expect longer lines than usual because of physical distancing requirements.
The safety measures continue even after ballots are cast. For examples, Stoddard said observers of the opening of ballots during the canvassing process that kicked off this week will have to be socially distanced.
“We’ve tried to think of every possible opportunity for exposure, and I think we have a high degree of confidence that we’ve got a system in place that will protect people and allow them to take advantage of their right to vote,” Stoddard said.
As for how confident voters should feel, Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said he still plans to vote in person this year.
“I remember as a kid, going with my parents, and when I was small enough, I could go with them into the voting booth … So, it’s something that many people continue to carry with them. And it is a tradition of sorts,” Gayles said.
He added, “We certainly are concerned, but we also know that there’s been tremendous work and strides made to keep the experience safe and to protect folks.”
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When will students return to classrooms?
Officials also discussed a possible return to classrooms for public school students.
Montgomery County Public Schools officials told members of the school board this week that “tremendous planning” has gone into returning students to the classroom, but no dates have been set. The school system began the school year with all-virtual classes through January because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The school system has asked the county for extra funding to install HVAC systems and filters to improve ventilation.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said funding is an issue.
“We’re trying to find out where to find the money from,” he said. “Obviously, we’re having a revenue crunch like everybody else.”
Neighboring school systems are planning to bring some students back to classrooms in small groups. D.C. Public Schools this week, for example, announced it planned to bring back most elementary school students starting next month, citing issues with distance learning with younger students.
County officials on Wednesday didn’t offer any firm timetable, noting that the ultimate decision rests with the school board.
“I would expect them to start relatively small and build out from there as they gain experience and comfort with their own procedures,” Stoddard said.
He said he expected the school system to start with small groups, such as young learners, those learning English and special-needs students.
“The time frame will be something the school system has to determine based on when they can get to a safe set of procedures with their staff and faculty,” he added. “But my guess is in the November time frame is when you’ll start to see some of those programs — if they can get the procedures in place and the Board of Education approves them.”
Health officials investigate soccer outbreak
Separately, health officials said they are tracing a coronavirus outbreak tied to a recent club soccer match. Gayles said the outbreak is tied to the Potomac Soccer Association “that has spilled over into one of the high schools.”
Gayles did not name the high school involved but said it involved a recent match between the two teams.
He said the health department was notified of two initial cases tied to the Potomac soccer club.
As a result of the contact tracing investigation, about 35 people were asked to quarantine. As of Wednesday, there were four positive cases, Gayles said.