Officials in Montgomery County are poised to reimpose a universal indoor mask mandate amid rising coronavirus cases, but say they hope that’s as far as they have to go in terms of new restrictions in Maryland’s most populous — and most vaccinated — county.
“We’re not looking to shut things down,” County Executive Marc Elrich said Wednesday during an online briefing with reporters. “Everything we’re doing is to prevent us from shutting down things … It’s trying to take steps that will minimize the spread of the virus, so that we don’t wind up where we were before.”
He added, “With our highly-vaccinated population, these kind of precautions can, hopefully, make a difference and keep us from falling into a place that we really do not want to be in.”
The Montgomery County Council is set to meet Thursday to hash out new regulations that would automatically trigger a universal indoor masking requirement as soon as the county reaches what Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines classify as “substantial” community spread of the coronavirus. The CDC unveiled the new guidelines last week amid surging coronavirus cases and hospitalizations across the country driven by the delta variant.
The substantial threshold is defined as a total of 50 cases per 100,000 residents in the past seven days.
Based on data reported by the CDC, Montgomery County, which has seen a notable rise in cases over the last month, is expected to hit that mark within the next day or so. (According to the county’s own COVID-19 data, it reached the substantial threshold on Wednesday).
Virus-related deaths in the county remain low, and there has been a modest uptick in hospitalizations.
“No one wants to go back to wearing masks,” Elrich said, but he said the move was necessary to keep the virus contained, especially as students prepare to return to classrooms en masse later this month.
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“We’re on the verge … of reopening our schools,” Elrich said. “We do not need adults getting infected, and bringing it home to their children, and having those children go into the schools. This is why people need to think about more than themselves.”
Overall, the county has one of the best vaccination rates in the country. More than 83% of the county’s eligible population is fully vaccinated, and 92% has received at least one dose.
However, in addition to children under 12 — who are not yet approved for any of the COVID-19 vaccines — there are about 100,000 adults in the county who have not yet been vaccinated, according to county data.
Given those “holes in the population,” and the rise in cases, Elrich said, “Masking is the best way to protect our health.”
As far as when the masks could come off again, those details are still to be worked out. The county council, acting as the board of health, will give final approval to the regulations, which are expected to include a “rollback” provision, said Earl Stoddard, the county’s acting assistant chief administrative officer.
One possible model would be based on a similar metric from the CDC extending the eviction moratorium in communities of substantial or high community transmission. The CDC’s eviction protection would phase out after 14 straight days below the substantial threshold.
The county could follow the 14-day rule in its own rules.
“We’re obviously concerned about the yoyo-ing,” Stoddard said. “You could go below, above, below, above over a period of time” and officials don’t want to keep switching up the mask rules.
Montgomery county employees: Vaccination requirement coming
Separately, Elrich confirmed his administration is still negotiating with employee unions but is planning to roll out a vaccination requirement for county employees. Unvaccinated employees would have to submit to regular testing.
“You’re going to have to be vaccinated or tested — that’s the direction we’re moving in,” he said.
It will take time to iron out the details, and put the various pieces of the plan in place, but Stoddard said the county had reached a “loose agreement” with union representatives on the plan.
Earlier this week, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman announced a similar plan to require workers employed by the county to either be vaccinated or be tested weekly before reporting to work. The new regimen would go into effect Sept. 13.
Gov. Larry Hogan is scheduled to provide a coronavirus update Thursday afternoon.