Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich has made it official, saying the county is not ready to begin easing coronavirus restrictions and that he will issue a countywide stay-at-home order that will go into effect Friday evening when some statewide restrictions are lifted.
“We will change the rules as soon as the science says that we can change the rules,” Elrich said during a news conference Thursday outside county government headquarters in Rockville, Maryland. “When that happens, we will start down the road of reopening things.”
Elrich said the county hasn’t seen the number of coronavirus cases or deaths steadily declining, which he said is necessary to begin safely reopening.
“If we step off of our policies and allow people to do what they were doing before, we’re not going to see anything but an increase in those cases,” he said. “We need to be careful, and we’re going to continue to be careful.”
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Elrich’s remarks came a day after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced a gradual lifting of statewide coronavirus restrictions, starting on Friday.
Hogan’s move will allow retail businesses, barbershops and salons to begin to reopen at 50% capacity. However, the governor also gave local jurisdictions the authority to move more slowly in easing restrictions.
Answering a reporter’s question, Elrich suggested the governor moved too quickly in lifting statewide restrictions.
“Personally, I think he went farther than he probably should have right now; I think he should’ve waited till the cases were at least on a downturn for some period of time so that you knew that you had more control over the virus than we have right now,” Elrich said.
Overall, Montgomery County has recorded the state’s second-highest coronavirus caseload, and the percentage of positive cases turned up in testing — 24% — is still well above the statewide average of 19%.
Though there’s some indication the rise in new cases has steadied recently, Elrich said there’s no sign yet the numbers are trending downward.
“Because we’ve plateaued doesn’t mean we’ve started on the downward curve,” he said.
In addition to the total case count, Montgomery County has experienced the highest death toll in the state. The county has recorded nearly 400 deaths — more than 20% of the state’s total.
The number of coronavirus patients requiring hospitalization is also troubling, Elrich said. As of Wednesday, 4 out of the county’s 6 hospital were at capacity for intensive care beds, he said.
“This is one of the things that concerns us, because, if there’s an uptick, our hospitals can’t withstand an uptick,” Elrich said.
When can the county safely reopen?
In his announcement, Elrich didn’t specify a date when the county restrictions would be lifted.
In neighboring Prince George’s County, which has consistently recorded the state’s highest coronavirus caseload, County Executive Angela Alsobrooks extended the county’s stay-at-home order through June 1.
In D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser on Wednesday extended her stay-at-home order through June 8.
Montgomery County’s health officer, Dr. Travis Gayles, told reporters the decision to ease countywide coronavirus restrictions would be based on meeting certain metrics, such as “sustained decreases” in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
Gayles acknowledged keeping the restrictions in place is difficult.
“This is hard,” he said. “We know it’s hard … We’re all living through uncharted territory. There is no playbook in terms of how we move forward or how we navigate through this. So, we appreciate your patience at home.”
Gayles said the county needs to see decreases in new cases even as more people in the county are tested.
“We are trying to capture as many individuals who are asymptomatic as possible who may have been unknowingly transmitting to other folks,” Gayles said. “We are working to get a handle on what that true denominator is, so that we can identify those individuals quickly, isolate them effectively, and thereby cut down on their networks of transmission.”
The county is also looking to see decreases in the percentage of coronavirus patients requiring hospitalization and ICU care. Currently, the overall county hospitalization rate is about 19%, which tracks with the statewide rate.
Finally, the county wants to see a decline in the number of daily deaths, Gayles said.
“Unfortunately, right now we’re seeing high single digit and low teens,” he added. “We’d like to see that number ultimately decrease to zero, but certainly decreased to lower digits in comparison to where we are today.”
Testing goal: 55,000 people a month
Montgomery County’s health officer said ramping testing capacity is critical to reaching these metrics.
So far, the county has tested about 3% of the population for COVID-19. The goal is to test 5% of the population monthly, Gayles said. That equates to about 55,000 people being tested each month.
The county has just rolled out a mobile testing hotline that will connect people to an over-the-phone consultation with a provider for “triage and screening” to determine if they need to be tested. If so, callers will be directed to an alternative care site for free testing.
The hotline number is (240) 777-1755.
Later this week, the county plans to stand up a mobile testing “army” that will travel to various sites to provide “pop-up” testing at high-risk sites, Gayles said.
‘Nightmare scenario’: Businesses that can’t reopen
Elrich acknowledged the toll the coronavirus restrictions have taken on the county’s economy, saying unemployment in the county is around 20%.
He said he has also heard from some businesses in the county who have told him they probably won’t be able to reopen even when they get the go-ahead because they’ve lost months of business and won’t be able to pay back rent.
“That is, to me, the nightmare scenario that’s facing not just Montgomery County, but America,” Elrich said.
It’s a problem that requires federal action by Congress, he added.
“We really need to take that extra step to make sure people aren’t facing a mountain of debt,” Elrich said. “Most small businesses in particular, they don’t make a lot of money. They operate on really slim margins, and the idea that in a month or two, they’d suddenly be able to come up with two or three months back rent — it’s just flat out unrealistic.”