Indoor dining ban in Montgomery Co. could end soon; council member ‘blown away’ by vaccine disparities

Montgomery County, Maryland, could soon restart indoor dining amid a decline in coronavirus cases — becoming the last jurisdiction in the state to do so — but officials stress they still don’t think it’s a safe option.

A draft executive order to allow indoor dining limited to 25% starting next Tuesday was sent to the Montgomery County Council on Tuesday.

Earl Stoddard, director of the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security Management, first hinted at the move in an appearance before the council earlier Tuesday.

The order must be approved by the council and wouldn’t go into effect until Feb. 9.

The proposed move to reopen indoor dining comes as an about-face for the county, which has defended its indoor dining ban even as neighboring jurisdictions, such as Prince George’s County and D.C., have lifted similar bans.

Speaking to the council Tuesday morning, Stoddard suggested the decision was about balancing the needs of public health and the economic impact of the ban, but said he still doesn’t feel that eating inside is safe.

“Just because something is permitted does not mean it’s a good idea,” Stoddard told council members.

Any activity indoors where you cannot wear a face mask and are around others not from your household for an extended period of time is not safe from a public health perspective, Stoddard said, adding, “My family won’t be participating” in indoor dining even if it’s approved in the county.

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The county council paused indoor dining in mid-December amid an uptick and before a holiday surge in coronavirus cases.

More recently, the number of new cases per 100,000 residents has declined by nearly half — from nearly 50 at the beginning of January to 26.2 as of Tuesday, according to data on the county’s coronavirus dashboard. The test positivity rate has also declined more modestly.

At-Large Council member Will Jawando said he doesn’t think restarting indoor dining makes sense even with improving numbers.

“I feel like I’m in ‘The Twilight Zone,'” he said. “If I went around and asked everyone on the call — my colleagues and I — I would hope and I think we would all say we’re not doing indoor dining because it’s not safe.”

Jawando said he won’t support the measure lifting the indoor dining ban when it formally comes before the Montgomery County Council.

“It just seems totally backwards that we would say, we’ve made a couple of weeks of progress, and we’re going to open indoor dining,” Jawando said.

‘Like watching a dystopian movie’

Montgomery County officials detailed the steps they are taking to ensure limited numbers of COVID-19 vaccine doses are distributed equitably, targeting specific ZIP codes that have been hardest hit by the coronavirus in terms of deaths and cases.

Montgomery County Health Department officials acknowledged that the county has work to do to ensure an equitable distribution of vaccine doses.

Several weeks after a website first opened up, allowing county residents to preregister for vaccines either now or when the doses become available to their group, there are stark demographic disparities, according to data presented to the Montgomery County Council.

As of Jan. 31, white residents of the county make up more than 73% of those who have signed up. The figures do not align with the county’s overall demographics, according to U.S. census data. There are also geographic disparities.

Dr. Raymond Crowel, head of the Montgomery County Department of Health, showed council members a map showing how preregistration by residents in the southwestern parts of the county, from Bethesda to Potomac, was far overrepresented, compared to underrepresented areas further north and east, in Silver Spring and Gaithersburg, for example.

“The data is showing that people are not signing up in proportion to their numbers in the population, or in relation to the impact of COVID on the community,” Crowel said. “So we’ve got some work to do to increase access to preregistration.”

In addition, the county is using the information collected during preregistration sign-ups to target certain populations based on race, ethnicity and geography within the 75-and-older group that is currently receiving appointments to be vaccinated.

Crowel said the county is prioritizing certain ZIP codes based on coronavirus case rates from the past 90 days and death rates over the course of the entire pandemic to “identify and allocate doses to people and to communities that have been most adversely impacted.”

Council members reacted in outrage over the disparities in access to the vaccine.

“I am absolutely blown away … It’s like watching a dystopian movie play out,” said Council member Nancy Navarro, who represents District 4 on the council.

She said she is aware that there are very limited numbers of vaccine doses, but she said she found it disturbing “the inequities and disparities are so stark already.”

She added, “When you look at who has preregistered, when we look who’s going to then have the access first, we’re already seeing this extraordinary gap.”

Council member Craig Rice, who represents District 2, said he appreciated the county health department’s efforts to target populations disproportionately impacted by the virus.

But he noted that an ever-growing number of vaccine doses sent to the county by the state are bypassing the health department and being delivered to other providers, such as hospitals and retail pharmacies, who are not bound by the county’s guidelines.

“The reality is that we have more doses outside of what you have, that don’t have that same commitment,” Rice said, speaking to officials from the health department. “And who loses are people of color in our community. We should be frank and honest and real about it.”

Rice said the proliferation of other providers being given vaccine doses by the state — instead of the county health departments — means, “The state has made a decision to private vaccine distribution, without ensuring that it goes to those who need it the most. Those are the facts. The numbers speak to it, we see it, and we see the results.”

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