While COVID-19 testing is rebounding in Montgomery County over the past week or so, officials on Wednesday warned of “COVID fatigue” and said the numbers are still lower than they need to be to keep track of the virus.
While Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said testing was inching back up in the county and statewide, the numbers were still down from the heights of the summer, mentioning “COVID fatigue” as a possible explanation, as well as recently corrected misinformation from the federal government about who needs to be tested.
County Executive Marc Elrich emphasized, “We have capacity for more testing; we need people to come in and get tested.” Otherwise, he said, it’s hard to know where the virus is until someone gets sick.
Elrich also advised residents to get flu shots. Gayles said getting flu shots is important so there’s “as little confusion as possible about who has COVID, who has the flu and who may have both.”
Elrich also emphasized the importance of wearing masks, pointing out the controversy last week when for a short time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put an advisory on its website saying that six feet of distance between people “isn’t necessary a foolproof barrier.”
Elrich asserted that “for political reasons, the items got taken down,” but that people should take the uncertainty seriously.
“It’s not all that difficult” to wear a mask, he said.
Gayles also reported that another nonpublic school in the county has met the state’s criteria for a COVID-19 outbreak, and that students at “a number of other” nonpublic schools have had COVID-like symptoms. Asked whether there had been any cases in the limited in-person structure of public schools, Gayles said that there may have been cases “separate from their school setting, but at this point we have not had any reported” that would require quarantines.
Dr. Earl Stoddard, director of the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said county officials were working on a “draft proposal” to expand alcohol sales until midnight from the current 10 p.m. cutoff.
He said the move would eventually be made, but that the county was “extremely scrutinous” of the idea. “Any circumstance that has people indoors congregating,” especially in places such as restaurants and bars where people aren’t wearing asks to eat and drink, has the potential to spread the virus.
Asked whether he was worried about the effect of safety restrictions on businesses, Elrich replied, “I’m worried about everything.” He added, “Whatever we’re doing, we’re doing in the context of whether or not we can keep people safe” and emphasized that indoor and outdoor dining are among the highest-risk activities.
Elrich mentioned the “sad” example of the Harp and Fiddle, which has had to close after a dropoff in business — as well as, Elrich added, the lack of any flexibility from their landlord. “I imagine there are other people who are in similar situations.”
Still, Elrich maintained, “We need to make sure we are as little exposed” to a possible second wave as possible. If the county’s numbers were similar to those in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, he said, “We’d be having a different conversation. But we aren’t even close.”
Stoddard said that the county is looking at the potential to emulate D.C. with a grant program to winterize outdoor dining spaces. He added that the county is working with neighboring jurisdictions on guidelines for how to safely celebrate Halloween, and hopes to have an announcement next week.
Elrich said the county’s requests for mail-in ballots has been “tremendous,” with hundreds of thousands of people requesting ballots. He recommended voting by mail rather than email, since email ballots have to be transcribed, with another person watching. “This complicates and slows down the process,” he said.
Mail-in ballots will be mailed out early next week, Elrich added, reminding voters to sign the affidavit on the envelope, not the ballot itself.
In-person voting will be held Oct. 26 through Nov. 2 at a number of sites across the county. Elrich advised voters to check the county website for a list of sites when the voting period opens. You can also drop your ballot at dropoff sites, a list of which you’ll get when you receive your ballot in the mail.
And on Election Day, Nov. 3, Elrich said, county residents can go to any of 39 voting sites in the county — all the early voting sites, all the public high schools and more.
Asked about the fiscal impacts of the pandemic and related closings, particularly whether tax increases and/or service cuts were on the way, Elrich said the county was anticipating less of an income-tax hit than they feared at first, thanks to the federal unemployment program. “We’re not going to see the complete falloff” of tax revenue that people saw in the Great Recession and other fiscal calamities, he said. Revenues will be off for fiscal 2021, but “it won’t be a deal-breaker.”
The next year will be the challenge, Elrich said, with the possibility of not filling empty government jobs, but “We’ve got ways of avoiding drastic cuts, at least for this year.”
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