Montgomery Co. exec to introduce vaccine requirement proposal for bars, restaurants to council

Montgomery County, Maryland, Executive Marc Elrich said Wednesday that he would like to have a vaccine passport proposal similar to D.C.’s in front of the County Council by the time it returns from recess.

Elrich said he has heard the concerns that introducing a vaccine requirement for bars and restaurants will drive away business, but does not believe that will be the case for the county.

“If you’re in a county when almost all the adults are actually vaccinated, I’m not sure who is ever going to leave the county to go eat somewhere else. It wouldn’t happen,” Elrich said.

The county executive did not offer concrete details on what the proposal would look like, but indicated the county requirements would be similar to those in D.C., which will require patrons of bars, restaurants and gyms who are 12 and older to provide proof that they have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine before being admitted starting Jan. 15.

County Council President Gabe Albornoz told WTOP he believes the council could institute a vaccine mandate, but would like to know more about how it would be implemented, how it would be received by the businesses it would be impacting.

“I think, in principle, the passport concept makes sense — especially if it’s done from a cross-regional standpoint, however, we need a lot more details on exactly how this is going to work, what infrastructure, we have to be able to implement it.

Elrich said he was concerned that if the county did not introduce similar legislation to D.C.’s vaccine requirement, it would create an incentive for unvaccinated people from the District to come to the county to eat and drink, thus posing a risk to the county.

Montgomery County has experienced a wave of demand for COVID-19 testing in the last week, as has much of the region as cases spike ahead of the holidays. County health official Sean O’Donnell said the county has seen an 85% spike in demand for tests, which has put a strain on supply.

O’Donnell advised residents to make an appointment for testing online, as some sites that have traditionally offered walk-up testing may begin turning people away in order to prevent overcrowding.

“So we remind people there are other locations to get testing, and we are hearing reports that rapid tests are available at pharmacies,” O’Donnell said. “It’s not easy to find them; we understand that. But they are continuing to get them in and sell them as well.”

Mask mandate

The council, when they next sit as the Board of Health in January, will also likely deal with the guidance on the indoor mask mandate.

Currently, the county is set to end its indoor mask mandate once 85% of the total population is fully vaccinated, but county health official Dr. Earl Stoddard said the previous guidance was created before the arrival of the omicron variant and the spike in cases the region has seen recently.

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Stoddard said he was hoping to avoid constantly changing the status of the county’s masking requirement, but that the virus and its variants have prevented the creation of a clean “roadmap” for exiting certain county health safety measures.

“I would expect that our recommendation would largely be that they should not be removing a mask mandate in the middle of a case rate in the thousands, and a rapidly escalating number of hospitalizations,” Stoddard said.

Albornoz agreed that the council will likely have to alter the metrics used to end the mask mandate, as conditions have changed since they last discussed it.

“The writing’s on the wall that the numbers are not going the way that we would like them to be,” he said.

Albornoz said that tying the mask mandate to a certain threshold of the population being fully vaccinated made sense at the time but, “we do need to reevaluate given the information that we have on the ground now,” he said. “And the feedback we’ve been given from our hospitals — because we have to remember that the virus itself is dangerous in its own right, but because of its impact on our overall public health system, we have to be very cautious, and the county has been consistent in its approach, and we don’t anticipate straying from that.”

Predicting backlash on the “changing goal posts” of public safety measures, Elrich said the virus has adapted and the county has needed to change its stance in order to keep up.

“How many times has COVID changed? This is not a case of moving goal posts — this is as if COVID just puts a new team on the field and says, ‘We’re playing a different game now,'” Elrich said. “So the first virus was not delta, and delta is not omicron. And so we’re dealing with something that’s changed — and fundamentally changed — the game.”

WTOP’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report. 

Zeke Hartner

Zeke Hartner is a digital writer/editor who has been with WTOP since 2017. He is a graduate of North Carolina State University’s Political Science program and an avid news junkie.

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