What would trigger a mask mandate in Montgomery County?

BETHESDA, MD - JUNE 12: A waiter at Raku, an Asian restaurant in Bethesda, wears a protective face mask as serve customers outdoors amid the coronavirus pandemic on June 12, 2020 in Bethesda, Maryland. Many streets are closed to vehicles in downtown Bethesda as Montgomery County continues its phase one easing of COVID-19 restrictions. (Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)(Getty Images/Sarah Silbiger)

Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, say they will follow new federal guidelines on restoring mask mandates if COVID-19 transmission in the county reaches a “substantial” level.

The trigger is a total of 50 cases per 100,000 residents over the past seven days, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). With a population of about 1,050,000 (according to the most recent Census data), that equates to about 75 new cases a day or 525 total cases in a week.

The county is now sitting at just under 32 cases per 100,000 residents in the last week.

In a news release Friday afternoon, County Executive Marc Elrich said he has sent a proposal to the county council that would automatically impose an indoor mask mandate — regardless of a person’ vaccination status — if the CDC threshold is reached.

“We have seen the daily number of new cases go up for more than two weeks and the majority of the new cases are the delta variant, which is highly contagious,” Elrich said in a statement. “While we have a high rate of vaccination in the community, health officials have determined that this variant is very easy to spread and we want to be sure that those in the community who aren’t eligible to be vaccinated, such as children under the age of 12, are protected.”

Elrich said he consulted with Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles on the recommendation.

The county council, sitting as the board of health, is set to vote on the proposal at a special session Aug. 5.

Montgomery County has one of the highest vaccination rates in the region with 78% of its residents at least partially vaccinated.

“Unfortunately, even in Montgomery County, we still have several hundred thousand people who are unvaccinated,” Earl Stoddard, the county’s assistant chief administrative officer, told WTOP earlier. “Many of them are young people who can’t be vaccinated.”

Regarding the possibility of reimposing mask rules, Stoddard said, “No one wants to have been in this position. I’m not interested in wearing a mask indoors any more than anyone else is,” but he called it a “very basic step” the county could take if the numbers continue to worsen.

“Rather than letting this go on unchecked, once we get into the significant transmission zone, we’d rather put in some basic measures that are not too onerous on our residents nor do they have the same impact on our businesses as closures and limitations,” he said.

Earlier this week, D.C. passed the threshold for significant COVID-19 transmission and, on Thursday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced masks would, once again, be required indoors in the District even for fully vaccinated people.

“Obviously, we’re not an island. And so we’re impacted by the vaccination rates and lack thereof of our neighboring jurisdictions and our region and our country,” Stoddard said.

There has been a slight increase in the number of coronavirus cases in Maryland’s most-populous county, but the hospitalization rate remains low.

Stoddard said they’re also concerned about the start of school when it comes to transmission and cases.

“Many people who are unvaccinated are young people and the obvious counter to that is, well, they don’t get super sick, but the flip side of that is they’re about to go back to school,” Stoddard said. “We want to have a successful return to in-person education.”

WTOP’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect Montgomery County’s population according to the most recent Census data.

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

Valerie Bonk

Valerie Bonk started working at WTOP in 2016 and has lived in Howard County, Maryland, her entire life. She's thrilled to be a reporter for WTOP telling stories on air. She works as both a television and radio reporter in the Maryland and D.C. areas. 

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