Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, say they are stepping up enforcement of coronavirus rules on big box retailers and grocery stores as the region deals with a surge of COVID-19 cases, and county leaders hint even stronger restrictions on gatherings and mask-wearing could be coming.
Earl Stoddard, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, told reporters during a media briefing Wednesday that his office was beefing up inspection and enforcement at retail stores across the county.
Capacity limits at retailers shrank to 25% under an executive order last week from County Executive Marc Elrich last week.
“We have heard a number of concerns raised about our grocery stores and other large establishments who have been open since the beginning of the pandemic,” but where there has been a “waning of compliance as it relates to face coverings, cleaning and other measures,” he said.
Stoddard’s remarks come a day after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced tighter statewide COVID-19 restrictions. The governor also urged local jurisdictions to step up the enforcement of existing coronavirus rules.
“While we don’t believe that our local enforcement has been lacking, we are taking that, you know, feeling to heart and looking where we can increase our inspections capabilities across the board,” Stoddard said.
During the briefing, Elrich and Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said the county is considering even more stringent restrictions on social gatherings.
Last week, the county approved new rules limiting social gatherings to 25 people and limiting capacity at restaurants, bars and gyms, in addition to retail outlets, to 25%.
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Gayles called those steps a series of “first line of restrictions,” and said the county is considering further action, including limiting indoor social gatherings to 10 and requiring the wearing of face coverings outdoors. Similar measures were taken by Prince George’s County last week.
Overall, the county is averaging nearly more than 280 new coronavirus cases a day — about double the average number of new cases at the beginning of the month.
The number of new cases per 100,000 is now at 25 — up from 13 two weeks ago. In late July and early August, the number of cases per 100,000 was down to fewer than 10.
Elrich called the increase in numbers “alarming,” and said, “This has clearly been spinning in the wrong direction.”
He called the push over the last few months to lift more restrictions shortsighted. “In the face of knowing this was coming … there was a push to open more and more things, knowing that this was coming down the road,” Elrich said.
Regarding the new capacity limits in businesses and the 10 p.m. curfew for restaurants and bars that Hogan announced Tuesday, Elrich said: “Personally, I don’t think they went far enough. But I also want to say that I understand the governor’s got really difficult decisions to make.”
Officials indicated the worst could still come. “We have yet to see the hospital surge and the fatality surge,” Gayles said. “But if you recall back to the spring, that surge lagged behind the case surge.”
As it stands now, about three-quarters of the hospital beds in the county are currently filled, which is still below an 80% benchmark that the county considers a potential trouble sign. However, about 13.8% of inpatient hospital beds are filled with COVID-19 patients, according to the county’s coronavirus dashboard, which county metrics consider a potential trouble spot.
During a peak amid the first coronavirus wave in the spring, the percentage of hospital beds filled by coronavirus patients topped out at nearly 39% before dipping down to 4.6% in late August.
The hospital numbers are, obviously, sort of the next really big, big area of concern,” Stoddard said.