‘The numbers are not on our side’: Montgomery Co. officials warn of large gatherings

Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, are urging residents to limit large gatherings, such as graduation ceremonies, warning that they are not safe and are not allowed under the county’s Phase Two coronavirus recovery plan.

“We continue to urge people to have the smallest social gatherings,” said Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich.

“Don’t plan to invite 50 people over if you don’t need to invite 50 people over — keep the group small,” Elrich said. “Make sure that everybody keeps their masks on and make sure that people are maintaining physical distance from each other.”

Under Phase Two, gatherings are limited to 50 people or fewer.

Regarding high school graduations, Earl Stoddard, director of the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said his office has learned in recent days about some schools’ intentions to hold graduation ceremonies, which the county is concerned about.

“Graduation ceremonies do represent potential areas of risk,” Stoddard said, noting the 50-person cap on gatherings applies to them

County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles encouraged groups seeking to hold events to submit plans to the county so officials can weigh in on whether and how the events can be held safely.

“We support the idea of trying to hold events and make events possible, because we recognize the spirit of them. But we also are very clear that there are rules and requirements,” Gayles said.

He stressed the rules on crowd sizes are about protecting public health.

“We’re not trying to be the boogeyman or to have police come in and shut things down,” Gayles said. “But there are practices that we have to adhere to … We are in a situation right now where the numbers are not on our side. And so the idea of having large-scale events with multiple hundreds of people in enclosed spaces does not inspire confidence that we would be able to potentially mitigate any transmission so any cases happen.”

Even if they’re held outside, large gatherings can pose a risk, Stoddard said, pointing to the results of statewide contact tracing efforts, which showed 21% of cases in the state are tied outdoor gatherings.

“Just because the gathering’s outdoors does not make it automatically safe,” Stoddard said.


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‘We aren’t in a bubble’

Overall, Montgomery County residents should expect Phase Two restrictions for a while.

A tightening of safety measures is possible if cases in the county — and across Maryland — fail to drop.

“The state has seen an increase in numbers,” Gayles said. “That’s it. I mean, there’s no sugarcoating it, wordsmithing it or twisting it around.”

Though Montgomery County has seen only the slightest uptick in cases recently, “We aren’t in a bubble,” Gayles said, pointing to an alarming increase in cases in Baltimore. “And so we have to look at what’s happening around us.”

In addition, the county is facing challenges reducing its case numbers from a consistent plateau of about 70 to 80 new cases a day.

Reinstituting stricter measures is possible, Gayles said.

“We actually are reviewing our internal policies to see if there’s anything we need to tweak or further adjust in terms of rolling back any provisions to keep our residents safe,” Gayles said.

The county could consider further limiting gatherings and crowd sizes, or take a closer look at restaurants and bars, he said.

“So, I think those are the types of things that we’re going to look at, again, to evaluate the policies, where we currently stand, to see if we need to change anything,” he said.

Crackdown on construction sites

Meanwhile, Stoddard said the county would begin a crackdown on unsafe construction sites.

“We have seen a lot of construction sites that have been operating in manners not consistent with good public health practice,” he said. “We’re concerned about those front-line workers, many of them populations of color, our Latino community, particularly as well. And, obviously, we do not want them to be in unsafe work conditions on those job sites. ”

Overall, most businesses are complying with coronavirus safety rules, Stoddard said.

He said fewer than three businesses have been ordered to close, and estimated 10-12 had been issued citations.

As for when the county could begin to move to even looser Phase Three guidelines,
Gayles said the county would need to see the number of new daily cases shrink to the teens or 20s.

“We need to see the numbers do a shift not only for us but across the state,” Gayles said.

Other parts of Maryland are seeing larger increases in cases, which Gov. Larry Hogan called a “stop sign” for reopening plans. Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Hogan said the state would remain in Phase Two until the number of cases shows signs of stabilizing.

Elrich offers eviction advice

Separately, Elrich provided some advice to county residents who may soon wind up in court over their inability to pay rent because of the pandemic.

A moratorium on evictions expired July 25, and the first rent cases are due to hit the courts by the end of next month

Elrich reminded residents that an executive order signed by Hogan that remains in effect prohibits evictions of people who have suffered a significant loss of income because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“If you can demonstrate that you’ve lost income because of COVID, then that’s a defense for not paying rent and a defense against eviction,” Elrich said, adding, “People need to know that if they’re out of work because of COVID, that is a totally legitimate defense.”

Still, Elrich called it a “stopgap” measure and said the county needs more funding from the state and federal government.

The Montgomery County Council this week passed a $20 million initiative to expand the county’s rental assistance program.

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