Higher coronavirus numbers in Montgomery Co. put plans to ease restrictions on hold

Officials in Montgomery County say they are temporarily pausing the relaxing of further coronavirus-related restrictions as public health teams investigate a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases.

Overall, the number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 hit more than 10 in recent days — the highest level since early August, County Executive Marc Elrich said Thursday.

An area with a case rate above 10 is categorized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as having a high rate of transmission, Elrich noted during an online news briefing and “is the point where you don’t want to be.”

The last time the county’s case rate was above 10 was in early August.

Coronavirus hospitalizations in the county — a three-day average of 86 people currently hospitalized, according to the county’s data — are also at their highest level in two months.

Hospitalizations of people with serious illnesses typically lag behind increases in cases.

“Our goal is to avoid the spikes that other people are having,” Elrich said. “That is territory we do not want to go into.”

Earl Stoddard, the director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said the county is sticking with Phase Two of its coronavirus reopening plan for now — and not going backward — but that it is putting plans to ease some other restrictions on hold.

The county is pausing work on an executive order that would have allowed “escape rooms” to reopen and relaxed restrictions on attendance at youth sports activities.

The county is also temporarily halting preliminary work on a plan to eventually allow live performance venues to reopen in a limited capacity, modeled on a similar pilot program in D.C.

“We need to investigate and find out exactly what the causes (for the uptick) are before we can feel comfortable moving forward,” said Stoddard, who explained county leaders didn’t want to send “potentially mixed messaging that we’re seeing an uptick in cases, but we’re opening more things up.”

Stoddard said the numbers now don’t necessitate rolling back existing Phase Two rules — for now. But that could change.

“It’s not just the number of cases, but the rate at which they’re increasing,” Stoddard said. “If you look at our current charts, the slope of the lines is changing.”

If the numbers keep rising over next few weeks or so, Stoddard said, “I think we’d be having much more serious conversations about where exactly we were.”

County officials did not say how long they would pause further loosening of the guidelines.

A regional decision

He said he and other county officials are reaching out to their counterparts in D.C. and Prince George’s County, since any decision to revert to more stringent restrictions would likely be a regional decision, he said.

“We’re not talking about going back to lockdown, but we are talking about going back to a more restrictive environment,” Elrich told reporters.

If restrictions are tightened, the county would look first at curtailing or limiting indoor gatherings, especially those that draw larger crowds, and any indoor gathering where people have to remove face coverings, such as dining, Stoddard said.

“Those are the highest-risk events,” he said.

Elrich said the county could also strengthen rules on late-night alcohol sales, which were recently loosened.

“The truth is that every single thing you do (to relax rules) adds cases,” he said, because anything that provides opportunities to come into contact with each other increases the risk of transmission.

The county is now averaging more than 100 coronavirus cases a day. Overall, the county has seen a total of more than 24,000 coronavirus infections and 820 deaths.

One bright spot is the test positivity rate — the percentage of tests in the county coming back positive — which is now at 3.2%. That’s well below a World Health Organization bench mark of 5%. However, it is slightly higher than last week’s 2.9%.

County executive responds to council criticism

Separately, Elrich responded to harsh criticism earlier this week from members of the Montgomery County Council who questioned members of his administration over why only a fraction of millions of dollars in federal aid for residents hardest hit by the coronavirus had actually been spent by the county.

Elrich who used to serve on the county council, said being a legislator “is the best job in the world because you can just say, ‘I want to spend this money,’ … and you don’t actually have to figure out how to do it. I wish it was simple, just to put more money out more quickly.”

Elrich said it took necessary time to set the programs up and lay out the rules and eligibility criteria.

“The criteria can’t be anybody who asks for money gets money,” he added.

He also responded to criticism from council members that didn’t personally brief the council at Tuesday’s hearing.

“At no point did anybody ask me to attend,” Elrich said. “County staff did not say, ‘Can the county executive’ come over.'”

Elrich said he doesn’t normally attend council hearings. “I had no reason to think this was going to be an unusual meeting … So I don’t know why they expected me to be there.”

He said the council has been receiving weekly spreadsheets detailing all county spending under the federal CARES Act.

“I don’t know how much more frequently you can get briefed in once a week in the spreadsheet,” he added. “I read the stuff people send me.”

The federal funding has to be spent by December or the county risks forfeiting it.

“I’m not worried about that,” Elrich said.

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