‘Time to hunker down’: Md. counties tighten COVID-19 restrictions amid surge

St. Anne's Episcopal Church is seen in the distance from Main Street in Annapolis, Md., Tuesday, March 31, 2020. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan issued a "stay-at-home" directive Monday in response to the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)(AP/Susan Walsh)

Telling residents “it is time to hunker down,” Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks announced tightened COVID-19 restrictions, including reduced capacity limits at bars and restaurants, limiting the size of gatherings, and redoubling efforts to reduce crowding at grocery stores and other retailers.

“We are in the midst of another surge,” Alsobrooks said during a news conference Thursday, pointing to rising coronavirus cases in the county, as well as an “alarming” recent increase in people hospitalized with the illness.

Among the new rules, the county is capping indoor social and family gatherings at one person per 200 square feet, or 10 people maximum. Outdoor gatherings are limited to 25 people.

Capacity limits at bars and restaurants are also being reduced to 25% indoors and 50% for outdoor dining. The number of people allowed in gyms and fitness centers is also being cut in half — from 50% to 25%, limited to one person per 200 square feet.

Alsobrooks also expanded the county’s mask mandate, saying all residents need to wear facial coverings whenever they leave their residences unless they are vigorously exercising. Previously, the order required facial coverings only indoors.

The new restrictions go into effect this Sunday at 5 p.m.

The limits on social gatherings apply to private residences, officials said. Regarding the capacity limits for indoor gatherings, officials stressed that the 10-person limit was a maximum based on the square footage necessary to maintain social distancing. For example, a gathering inside a 600-square-foot apartment would actually be limited to three people given the square footage requirements.

In addition, Alsobrooks said county teams are stepping up efforts to enforce existing capacity limits at retail outlets and big box stores — capped at 50% — and to make sure social distancing and mask wearing is being enforced both there and at grocery stores.

“I go into those stores and, in some instances, I’m concerned — they are full of people,” she said, adding that it’s of particular concern with the holidays approaching.

She said that the county’s compliance teams would be dispatched to retailers to make sure they aren’t too crowded and that health rules are being followed.

‘Squarely in the high-risk category’

Prince George’s County Health Officer Dr. Ernest Carter said the executive’s new actions should be “a call to action for every resident in this county because another COVID wave has arrived.”

In the first week of November, the county recorded a total of 1,309 total coronavirus cases — more than double the number of cases in the last full week of September.

The test positivity rate — the percentage of coronavirus tests in the county coming back with a positive result — now sits at 6.4%. That’s higher than the statewide average of 5.65%, and the highest in Prince George’s County since July.

Hospitalizations in the county are also at their highest level since July, Carter said, with about 70 people currently hospitalized in the county.

In addition, the average number of daily cases per 100,000 has ticked up to 20.6. Health officials consider anything over 10 high-risk, based on CDC guidance.

“The county is squarely in the high-risk category for COVID spread now, which means the community spread has accelerated and is at dangerous levels,” Carter said.

If the number of daily new cases per 100,000 people pushes past 25, that would put the county in “critical” territory, Carter said, which would be the “tipping point of uncontrolled spread.”

More Coronavirus News

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

Similar tightened restrictions in Anne Arundel Co.

Earlier Thursday, Anne Arundel County — citing a “sudden increase” in COVID-19 cases — also announced several new restrictions. The new rules there also limited social gatherings to 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors, starting Friday.

Starting Monday, youth athletics are suspended for all county fields and facilities, and by the end of next week, the maximum indoor capacity at restaurants and bars will be reduced from 50% to 25%.

The average number of daily new cases in Anne Arundel County has also climbed past 20 — which is far higher than the previous peak of about 14 over the summer and in the spring, when the pandemic was first raging in the region.

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman said he wrestled with the decision to further restrict eating out and drinking at bars, but said those activities carry some of the highest risks.

“You can’t wear the damn mask when you’re eating; you can’t wear the damn mask when your drinking,” Pittman said.

Pittman said he knows the tightened capacity limits will be tough for businesses, and he’s urging people “to step up and do takeout” and tip generously.

Earlier this week, amid an ongoing spike in cases, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan rolled back some statewide coronavirus restrictions, reducing indoor capacity at restaurants and bars to 50% — down from 75% — and recommended indoor gatherings be limited to no more than 25 people.

The state has seen nine straight days of daily caseloads of greater than 1,000 cases.

The statewide positivity rate — the percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive — ticked above 5% earlier this week for the first time since late June. The state’s positivity rate sits at 5.65% as of Thursday morning.

The number of Marylanders hospitalized with COVID-19 was listed as 863 — the highest number since June.

The state reported another 12 deaths on Wednesday. All told, the state has documented 4,112 confirmed COVID-19 deaths among its residents.

Faced with the accelerating cases, Montgomery County earlier this week tightened indoor capacity limits at restaurants, bars, gyms and retail outlets to 25%. The 25% capacity also applies to religious facilities.

The new rules in Montgomery County also limit public gatherings to 25 people, down form 50 previously.

WTOP’s Kyle Cooper contributed to this report. 

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.

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