Officials in Montgomery County are easing more coronavirus-related restrictions starting Tuesday under a new plan that ties the lifting of restrictions in Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction to the county’s vaccination rate.
The Montgomery County Council, acting as the board of health, unanimously approved the new reopening plan Tuesday, billed as “paradigm shift” for the county, which has generally moved more slowly than neighboring jurisdictions in lifting restrictions on businesses and gatherings.
“I think it will allow our community … and our businesses to plan for a different summer,” At-Large Councilmember Hans Riemer said shortly before the vote.
With more than 50% of county residents now having received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, the county will loosen restrictions on movie theaters, camps, malls and sports events starting Tuesday at 5 p.m.
Under the new rules:
- Gathering limits are increased to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors. The gathering limits will also allow camps.
- Theaters, which are limited to 25% currently, can expand to 50% capacity and also serve concessions to seated customers.
- Sports events can move to 50 people indoors and 100 outdoors with a similar number of spectators.
- Escape rooms can allow 10 people per game, up from six people.
- Museums and galleries can reopen touch exhibits.
- Malls can reopen pedestrian concourses and return tables and chairs inside.
The new rules were proposed when the county’s vaccination rate was just under 50%, but the county crossed that threshold Monday afternoon. As of Tuesday, 33.6% of residents are fully vaccinated, meaning they have received two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or have received the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The plan the council approved Tuesday continues to tie future reopenings to the vaccination rate.
When the percentage of the county’s population that has received at least one dose reaches 60%, the county plans to ease further restrictions.
- Expanding gathering limits to 250 people and doing away with limits entirely on outdoor gatherings.
- Allowing theaters and restaurants and religious facilities to expand to 75% capacity.
- Sports can increase capacity for participants and spectators to 250 people indoors and no limit outdoors.
- Camps would also be able to increase their gathering limits and could have campers from outside the D.C. area.
- Convention and banquet facilities would be limited to 50% capacity, per state restrictions.
- Cigar and hookah bars may permit smoking outdoors.
The final phase would kick in when 50% of the population has been fully vaccinated. In that phase, all coronavirus rules on businesses and gatherings would follow state rules, which have already generally loosened.
Lifting the cap on gatherings was supported by members of the hotel and hospitality industry, who said they were losing out on millions of dollars in business.
Before the vote Tuesday, At-large Councilmember Will Jawando said: “We’re not out of the woods, but we’re making significant progress … I think some people will say after today’s action, ‘About time, you should have done it five weeks ago.’ Others will say, what’s happening is the correct approach, ‘Thank you for being methodical.'”
The new rules approved by the council Tuesday also ease the county’s strict mask mandate to allow people participating in “vigorous outdoor exercise” to remove face coverings “in high heat and high humidity conditions,” which is in line with guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
An amendment approved by the council clarified that the new mask rules apply to adults, too. The regulations do not specify what qualifies as high heat and humidity.
The county adopted the new mask regulations shortly before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance on mask-wearing, saying fully vaccinated people do not need to wear face coverings outside as long as they aren’t in crowded situations.
Council members predicted having to amend the county’s COVID-19 regulations given the new CDC guidance.
County health officials laid out a loose timeline for how quickly they anticipated being able to reach the vaccination milestones.
Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, said given the pace of vaccinations he predicted reaching the 60% threshold in the next two to three weeks.
“Then the jump from the second phase to the third phase probably looking somewhere — best-case scenario if there’s a windfall of doses — a month to six weeks,” he said.
Gayles earlier told the council that the number of vaccine doses supplied to the county’s health department had actually fallen recently, from more than 10,700 first doses a week to 7,020.
In addition, the county’s mass vaccination site in Germantown, which had hoped to receive enough doses to do 3,000 shots a day, had only received a total of 4,800 doses per week for the past several weeks.
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