Officials in Montgomery County have relaxed rules for face coverings in Maryland’s largest county, lifting the outdoor mask mandate entirely and allowing people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to also go without masks indoors.
The Montgomery County Council, sitting as the board of health, unanimously voted Tuesday to ease mask rules in the county.
The new rules come after coronavirus-related capacity limits for restaurants and most other businesses expanded after health officials said a milestone of 60% of county residents with at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot had been reached.
Montgomery County has tied the lifting of restrictions to the vaccination rate and is set to lift all coronavirus capacity restrictions May 28, when 50% of county residents will be fully vaccinated and the county is set to drop all its COVID-19-related restrictions and fully align with the state’s reopening plans.
The county’s new mask rules say that people who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear face coverings indoors, with a few exceptions, including in health facilities, schools and public transportation, in line with newly-issued state rules.
People who aren’t fully vaccinated — which means at least two weeks after their final shot — are still required to wear masks indoors until May 28.
Distancing will also be required until May 28, a county spokeswoman told WTOP.
Health officer: No shaming people who stick with masks
How businesses will enforce the requirement that unvaccinated people keep wearing masks for the next 10 days is a “gray area,” said Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer.
On the other hand, private businesses and workplaces can also keep in place stricter mask rules.
“It’s important to emphasize for businesses, as well as individuals, they still have the opportunity to put into policies that they feel will keep themselves, as well as their clients, safe,” Gayles said. “So if you are a business who still would like to emphasize physical distancing or face coverings within your space, you have the prerogative to do so, and you would be supported in doing that.”
Gayles said even with the easing of the mask rules, some people, in general, may feel more comfortable continuing to wear face coverings “and they should be supported in that and not shamed if they decide to so,” he said.
The doctor said, despite being fully vaccinated himself, he is still figuring out what he feels comfortable doing.
“Maybe it’s out of habit or not, I still put on my face covering when I leave the house when I’m out in common spaces,” he said, adding that he would likely continue wearing his mask when he goes to the gym.
Earl Stoddard, the director of the county’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said he, too, would likely continue wearing a mask in some indoor settings.
“As we move into this environment where we’re gonna have people with face coverings on and some without, please do practice a level of kindness with one another,” Stoddard said. “Some people are going to be comfortable removing the face coverings when vaccinated, some people are going to be uncomfortable.”
The county’s action on mask rules comes after revised guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week, which stated fully vaccinated people are safe to be indoors around others without masks.
Following the revised CDC guidance, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan rescinded the state’s indoor mask rules.
After Montgomery County’s move Tuesday, Prince George’s County is the only remaining jurisdiction in the D.C. area with a universal requirement for people to wear masks indoors.
Montgomery County officials have credited their generally more cautious approach at lifting restrictions for the county’s low levels of transmission. As of Tuesday, the county test positivity rate was just 1.37%, and the rate of new cases was just 3.5 cases per 100,000 residents.
Officials, however, also noted the county still had more work to do to keep up the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations.
Even though the county is among the top jurisdictions in the state in terms of the pace of getting shots in arms, still about 40% of county residents haven’t received even one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine shot — which equates to about 400,000 people. That includes about 225,000 people 12 and older who are eligible for the shots now.
Vaccination efforts have largely plateaued over the past two weeks, according to county data presented to the council.
Gayles said the move to lift restrictions in the count is a “delicate balance.” He added, “We want to get more people covered so we can open things up more and return to some sense of normalcy but not open up too fully and recklessly and too quickly to set ourselves up for potential cases to happen as things open up more throughout the summer.”
Stoddard said the county is in the business of trying to mitigate the risks of COVID-19 transmission but can’t eliminate the risks entirely.
“There are absolutely risks that we could see increases of cases, if not now, certainly again in the fall and we may need to take additional actions again in the fall,” he said.
He added, “I’m not trying to be doom and gloom about this. I think it’s very likely that it won’t happen, but it’s not impossible. I think we just need to be prepared for the possibility that we can see things get worse and then we may have to talk about what actions would be necessary.”
At-Large Council member Hans Riemer acknowledged the county is “at a transitional stage” but he added, “I think it is appropriate to begin to lift some of these restrictions and make it ever more clear to those who are not yet vaccinated that it’s vaccination that’s the solution. You’ve got to go get vaccinated. That’s it. End of story. Go get vaccinated. That’s how you’ll be safe.”
In addition to the mask rules, the county formally codified new rules that went into effect Monday once the 60% threshold for first doses was reached.
The new rules mean:
- No more capacity limits for outdoor gatherings, including sports and outdoor graduation ceremonies;
- The capacity limits for indoor gatherings is increased to 250 people;
- The capacity limits at restaurants, theaters and most other businesses is expanded to 75%;
- The rules for summer camps align with state rules and campers from outside the D.C. region are allowed to attend.
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