Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, say their extremely cautious approach throughout the coronavirus pandemic and efforts to speed vaccinations have paid off, and that residents of Maryland’s largest county are now enjoying a “slightly relaxed life” with less worry about contracting the virus.
“I continue to run into people who are just so excited about being able to do things again, and to be able to do it in the atmosphere that people feel is a safe atmosphere,” County Executive Marc Elrich said during a virtual media briefing Wednesday, saying he had recently attended his first concert, and his first two ballgames, since the COVID-19 pandemic started.
It’s yet another sign of the return of some semblance of normal.
The county lifted nearly all pandemic-related restrictions late Tuesday night, including a requirement that everyone indoors wear face coverings. The county kept in place a mask requirement inside county buildings, but that eased this week. Now, masks are only encouraged for those who are not vaccinated in most county facilities.
“We’re encouraging the unvaccinated, for their own sake, to wear a mask,” Elrich said. “The thing I want to reiterate: The danger is less that an unvaccinated person’s going to infect a vaccinated person. The real risk is for an unvaccinated person who contracts COVID and doesn’t know it, to infect another person with COVID, who’s also unvaccinated.”
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Other signs of “normal life” returning abound:
Starting next week, retail liquor stores managed by the Alcohol Beverage Services return to their normal operating hours — Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. The Poolesville store has slightly different hours.
Also starting next week, eight more branches in the Montgomery County Public Library system will reopen for in-person browsing and services for the first time since the pandemic shuttered operations.
Six branches opened at the beginning of the month. The new locations are in Rockville, Damascus, Bethesda, Gaithersburg, and Silver Spring, among other locations.
Elrich and other county officials stressed that some businesses have kept individual mask mandates in place — and they have the power to do so.
“I think that what we’re seeing now is … when we go to businesses we kind of try and figure out, you know, is this business requiring it or not?” said Dr. Earl Stoddard, the director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, calling it a “transition period.”
He added, “I think we’re slowly seeing people starting to understand that there are many settings where you can wear a mask but aren’t required to, and people are starting to feel more comfortable making that individual choice in various settings. I would say in Montgomery County, we have a lot of people who are going to wear face coverings for at least the foreseeable future, … That’s their choice to make, and I don’t think there’s a problem.”
But more than a year after the start of the pandemic, Stoddard said, the county is in a different place compared to early days of the pandemic and the ensuing see-saws of coronavirus spike over the past several months.
“Obviously, people should not feel a need to sit home and do nothing,” Stoddard said. “They should feel comfortable reaping the benefits that we have all put so much effort into … whether you choose to wear a face covering or not.
Data from the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the virus is in retreat across Maryland and the county in particular.
“We continue to see low transmission at the community level,” said Dr. James Bridgers, the county’s deputy health officer, during the media briefing.
Overall, the positivity rate — meaning the percent of coronavirus tests coming back with positive results — is at 0.45%, which is the lowest rate in the county. The current case rate is just over one new case per 100,000 residents — 1.02 — which is the second-lowest in the state.
In part, the county touted its success at vaccinating residents for the low number of cases.
According to data from the CDC, Montgomery County has fully vaccinated more than 71% of residents 12 and older, which puts the county in first place among counties of 300,000 people or more.
Data from the Maryland Department of Health show a slightly smaller percentage of Montgomery County residents fully vaccinated — just slightly more than 65%. But Elrich said the CDC data is more complete because it includes COVID-19 vaccinations of county residents that happened outside the state.
“The CDC takes account of all county residents, wherever they were vaccinated,” Elrich said.