Saturday marks the return of the indoor mask mandate in Montgomery County, Maryland.
The county’s mask mandate, which was rescinded three weeks ago, was re-triggered automatically based on rising COVID-19 transmission rates in the county. It went back into effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday.
The mask mandate applies to everyone 2 years and older in public, indoor settings.
County officials said this week they believe a return to mandating masks can help keep rising numbers of new COVID-19 under control as the holidays approach.
“Let me be clear, everyone should be wearing a mask when indoors or in a crowded setting, no matter what the official regulations are,” County Executive Marc Elrich said during an online media briefing this week. “I know that beyond the small minority of our residents, most people get it. They wear their masks, and that is why we continue to be one of the safest jurisdictions in the nation in terms of our COVID rates.”
The mask mandate is triggered if the county experiences seven straight days of “substantial” community transmission of the coronavirus.
That is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as more than 50 cases per 100,000 residents over the past seven days. As of Friday, the county had experienced nine days of substantial transmission, and Montgomery County’s case rate was 63.
The mask mandate is automatically rescinded once the county experiences seven consecutive days of lower-than-substantial transmission rates.
Overall, the county has seen its COVID-19 case rates creep up — 15% in the past week alone, Elrich said.
“Our numbers are heading in the wrong direction,” Elrich said. “Over the last month, we saw a dip in case rates, but now we’re back to about where we were a month ago.”
Still, critics of the mask mandate point to the low number of hospitalizations and deaths, the ample hospital supply and the exceedingly high rate of vaccinations of in Maryland’s most populous county, which makes people significantly less likely to suffer serious cases of COVID-19.
More than 78% of the county’s total population is fully vaccinated, and more than 87% have had at least one dose of a vaccine.
The reinstatement of the mask mandate in Montgomery County also comes just two days before D.C. is set to lift its broad mask mandate.
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D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said residents will still be encouraged to wear masks but that, starting Monday, the city will no longer enforce a mandate. D.C. officials say almost all COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths are among unvaccinated patients, and that the city aims to start managing COVID-19 as an endemic health situation like the flu.
D.C.’s transmission rate per 100,000 residents, as of Friday, was even higher than Montgomery County’s — about 90, according to CDC data.
Elrich said he thought D.C.’s move was “premature.”
For their part, D.C. leaders have criticized Montgomery County’s data-driven approach to the mask mandate, saying it has led to “whiplash” for residents as the data shifts.
On Oct. 28, the county’s mask mandate terminated after the requisite seven straight days of falling case rates, and then a day later, was in danger of being reimposed based on a one-day spike in cases. That led county council members to hastily call a meeting to rewrite the health order, requiring seven straight days of substantial transmission before the mask mandate can be reimposed.