Montgomery County hints at stronger COVID-19 safety measures, calls for rules from Hogan

Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, said on Thursday that Gov. Larry Hogan needs to step up and offer statewide mandates as COVID-19 cases continue to spike in the state as well as the county.

Hogan on Tuesday issued an order limiting capacity at bars and restaurants in Maryland to 50% from the previous 75%, and “strongly discouraging” indoor gatherings of more than 25 people.

In an online briefing, County Executive Marc Elrich said of Hogan, “When he talks about ‘strongly recommending’ — I mean, I felt like it just needed to bite the bullet and say not that ‘You should do this,’ but ‘You must do this.'”

“I wish he had gone farther. … We’re at a ‘must’ point, not a ‘should’ point,” Elrich said.

He added that going back to measures that were in place in the spring, when case numbers were not as bad in many places as they are now, is “probably not enough right now.”

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Earl Stoddard, the county’s director of the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, pointed out that while cases were up everywhere in Maryland, records were being set in the smaller, outlying counties, not in the more populated ones.

“His numbers aren’t getting any better; our numbers aren’t getting any better,” Elrich said. “I wish he had gone farther.”

The briefing came amid a new surge of COVID-19 cases in the county and state that had officials, who have already tightened restrictions, hinting that stronger measures could be on the way.

County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said test positivity in the county is at 4.3% on Thursday, and was at 4.8% on Wednesday.

The rate of transmission — that average number of people each COVID-19 patient goes on to infect — is over 1.4, indicating a growing spread.

The county is seeing just under 19 cases per 100,000 people, while 20 of the 24 jurisdictions in Maryland are over 10 per 100,000, and over 10 of those have case rates greater than 20 per 100,000.

“The first line of restrictions that we proposed could be tweaked again,” Gayles said.

Stoddard added that the measures already put in place need seven to 10 days to evaluate.

With Prince George’s County reducing indoor capacities to 10% of normal, but Montgomery County at 25%, Elrich said, “10 is actually a better number than 25 … we will look at what the other counties are doing.”

Regarding Hogan’s announcement, Gayles said, “We would like to have seen some guidance around capacity limits, enforcement, penalties … as well as some criteria for closure” of certain businesses and industries.

Elrich added, “Since we went into [Phase Two], we’ve done nothing but watch our numbers go up. And this was totally predictable.”

Stoddard pointed to a spike in cases in the Midwest that was followed by a large increase in the number of hospitalizations, which was then followed quickly by a spike in deaths.

That, he said, was cause to worry about the situation in Montgomery County and across Maryland: “What’s going to happen in two weeks?”

Halloween party

Gayles confirmed that a Halloween party in Montgomery County drew 75 people, 30 of whom were county residents, and that 15 of those residents had tested positive for the coronavirus.

He said the investigation was continuing, but that the party “potentially [violated] a number of our guidelines.”

Stoddard added that the county has issued violations to businesses who skirt capacity restrictions, so, pending the investigation, they would issue a citation in this case, too.

Hazard pay

Elrich also addressed the issue of COVID-19 hazard pay awarded improperly to a group of inspectors in the Department of Permitting Services for work that was done at home or without facing the public.

The county executive said the acting director of the department at the time made the incorrect decision to tell the workers they would be awarded the hazard pay, and that the overpayment was the manager’s fault.

“I just want to disabuse people of the notion that that 75 employees conspired to submit reports of their time that were inaccurate,” Elrich said. “That’s not what they did.”

Though a report by the inspector general recommended getting the money back from the workers, Elrich said it wasn’t likely.

“I don’t know if we’re gonna be able to get the pay back, because this isn’t a case of employees falsifying their timesheets and violating our policy — there’d be no doubt that we would get the money back. That’s not the case here.”

Economic development

The briefing began with a preview of a report by the Economic Advisory Group.

The report hadn’t been released by the time of the meeting, but Elrich said the goal was an economic recovery that leaves the county in a stronger, more equitable place than before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Simply trying to recover where we were before this crisis — it is not enough,” Elrich said. “This group was convened to deal with the present, but more importantly, with the future of the county … not only how do we recover from what hit us, but how do we move forward to do some of the things that we really need to do.”

Group Chairman Doug Firstenberg said that one priority was to change the perception that the county was “a very difficult place to do business,” and specific focus would be put on the life sciences and hospitality industries that already have a strong hold in the county.

Though not a lot of specifics were detailed, group member Angela Graham, of Quality Biological, said a “bio boot camp” would be established in a partnership between Montgomery College and The Universities at Shady Grove, along with private businesses in the area.

Students would get a tuition-free, four-week intensive training session in entry-level laboratory skills, then be interviewed for jobs by the partners.

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