Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, voted Thursday to reinstate a mask mandate requiring people in the county to wear face coverings in indoor public spaces, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated against COVID-19.
The Montgomery County Council, acting as the board of health, unanimously approved the new mask rules. They go into effect Saturday at 12:01 a.m. and apply to “indoor areas open to the public.”
“We are hoping that this will be a short-term measure that will help us reduce the spread of the dangerous delta variant, and we continue to urge all eligible residents who are not vaccinated to get vaccinated immediately,” Council President Tom Hucker said shortly before the vote.
The move comes after new guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended universal masking indoors in areas experiencing “substantial” or “high” transmission of the virus based on weekly case counts.
The county’s mask mandate will automatically phase out after the county returns to lower levels of COVID-19 transmission for seven consecutive days.
Separately, the board voted to move forward with requiring workers employed by the county to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to weekly testing.
The measure approved by the board requires County Executive Marc Elrich to send to the council a detailed implementation plan for rolling out the vaccination requirements across the county’s roughly 10,000-member workforce by Aug. 20, and to begin submitting broad data on vaccination status by Aug. 31.
Elrich said earlier this week he had loose agreement with labor groups on the matter.
The county eased its indoor mask rules in May in line with federal guidelines. But the CDC reversed course late last month, saying even fully vaccinated people should wear masks indoors in some settings amid surging virus cases nationwide spurred by the delta variant.
Most of the D.C. area now meets the CDC’s threshold for at least substantial spread of the coronavirus. Montgomery County, which is Maryland’s most populous county, officially reached that threshold Thursday.
There are several exceptions to Montgomery County’s mask mandate.
Face coverings are not required if a person has a “bona fide disability or medical condition”; is receiving dental care, shaving or facial treatments; is eating and drinking; or swimming or engaging in exercise where the use of a face covering would pose a safety risk.
Another exception was added via an amendment authored by Council member Andrew Friedson, who represents District 1. It exempts mask wearing by a person giving a speech or performance as long as they are 6 feet away from others.
The automatic phaseout of the new mask mandate was also the brainchild of Friedson, who initially pushed for a quicker trigger. Before the council settled on seven consecutive days of moderate levels of community transmission, Friedson suggested both three consecutive days as well as a single day of moderate transmission.
No talk of stricter measures, for now
While coronavirus cases are on a steady rise in the county, virus-related deaths in Montgomery County remain exceedingly low, and there has been a modest uptick in hospitalizations.
Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, said reinstating mask rules now is part of an effort to continue to keep hospitalizations low and to stave off the need for more severe measures in the future.
“Hopefully, by putting forward this measure, this will prevent any conversation about closures, capacity limits, those kinds of things,” he said.
Hans Riemer, an at-large council member, said any decisions about stricter measures, such as capacity limits, should be based on hospitalization data not just case counts.
“The good news is the number of new hospital admissions is a tiny fraction of what it has been,” he said.
He added, “I think that the level of new hospital admissions that we have now, would not support more significant measures, and I want to dispel any notion that the level of cases that we have now would justify school closures,” he said. “They would not — absolutely not.”
Several members of the public testified during a public hearing before the vote, and the reception to the proposed rules was mixed, with some speakers pointing to the county’s high vaccination rate making a return to a mask mandate unnecessary.
More than 83% of eligible county residents are already fully vaccinated, one of the highest rates in the country.
While the delta variant is highly infectious and “breakthrough” cases do happen rarely, COVID-19 vaccines still provide a strong level of protection.
“I am sorry we’re back here again,” said Council member Nancy Navarro, who represents District 4. “I know that this is extraordinarily frustrating for everyone who has stepped up and done what they had to do.”
She said she worried about “fatigue” setting in and that residents, despite the county’s success at vaccinating residents, would see the mask mandate as step backward.
“We’ve got to also think about those who are not eligible to be vaccinated yet, and not just do this for ourselves, to do it for our community,” Navarro said.
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