Hogan Easing More Restrictions on Businesses and Public Gatherings

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) at a news conference two weeks ago announcing that Maryland commerce can begin to reopen Friday. Screenshot

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) announced Wednesday that he is easing the state into the “completion” of his administration’s “stage one recovery plan” from the COVID-19 outbreak, allowing restaurants to serve customers outdoors and expanding recreational activities in the state.

At a late afternoon State House news conference, Hogan said he was comfortable taking additional steps to reopen the state’s economy and lift certain restrictions on Marylanders’ movements and activities because key metrics — including the state’s COVID-19 testing capacity, hospitalization rates and number of patients in intensive-care units — are “trending in the right direction.”

Hogan emphasized that the ultimate call for restricting activities in the state rests with local leaders. He pointed out that officials in 23 of the state’s 24 jurisdictions — with the exception of Montgomery County — have taken steps to reopen their economies and ease travel restrictions, or have announced their intention to do so.

Hogan’s announcement comes as the death toll from the coronavirus topped 2,200 in Maryland Wednesday. But the governor said the state has just hit its goal of conducting 10,000 COVID-19 tests a day, and that 334,000 tests have been taken overall. He said the rate of tests that come back positive, along with the number of COVID patients in hospitals and ICU units, have dropped dramatically over the past month.

Hogan said that even in the state’s coronavirus hot spots — Prince George’s and Montgomery counties — the percentage of positive tests is declining significantly.

“I understand — some people believe we’re moving too quickly, other people believe we’re moving too slowly,” Hogan said. “I understand there’s going to be criticism on both sides and we’re not going to make everybody happy.”

Hogan said polls have suggested that about 80% of Marylanders believe restrictions are being lifted at about the right pace.

Two weeks ago, Hogan announced the first phase of his stage one plan to ease restrictions in the state. He reopened state parks, playgrounds and beaches, and said certain retail outlets could open if they employed self-distancing practices and emphasized curbside pickups.

Under the new order, beginning at 5 p.m. Friday, restaurants — many of which have relied on takeout and delivery orders, if they haven’t shuttered altogether — can begin serving patrons on decks, patios and other outdoor settings. Hogan said he was also encouraging local governments to “find innovative ways” to enable restaurants to expand their outdoor seating capacity, by closing certain streets to vehicular traffic.

Under Hogan’s guidance, no more than six people can sit together at an outdoor table, and patrons must be spaced at least six feet apart. Restaurants — along with VFW halls and social clubs, which are also covered by the order — must adhere to strict sanitation and safety practices as laid out by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hogan said all restaurant workers must be screened daily for fever.

Business owners and the groups that represent them were cautiously optimistic about Hogan’s announcement, but also wondered how quickly local governments would adopt Hogan’s guidance.

“Restaurants operate on the thinnest of margins under normal circumstances, so giving us more opportunities to get our customers back is very much appreciated,” said Andrew Fox, owner of two Annapolis restaurants, Fox’s Den and Vida Taco Bar.

Mike O’Halloran, Maryland director of the National Federation of Independent Business, called Hogan’s announcement “welcome news.”

“But serious concerns remain with how this will play out in each jurisdiction and if restaurateurs will be able to staff up appropriately,” he said.

In a Facebook post, state Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) said he was “exceedingly pleased” with Hogan’s announcement.

“This action is essential to the survival of Maryland’s hospitality industry, which is responsible for nearly half a million jobs in our state,” said Franchot, whose office has run one of its patented social media campaigns to urge Hogan to allow restaurants to serve customers outdoors.

Also beginning at 5 p.m. Friday, outdoor swimming pools will be allowed to reopen at 25% capacity, Hogan said. Children’s day camps can reopen for outdoor activities only, with a limited number of participants. Youth sports leagues can resume “low contact” outdoor practices. All children and staffers must be checked regularly for COVID-like symptoms.

Hogan said that if COVID-19 public health trends continue, and if his latest moves to reopen the state prove successful, he’ll consider activating Phase Two of his reopening plan next week, which would enable businesses deemed nonessential to reopen.

Still no movement in Montgomery County

Even as Prince George’s County, Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia take tentative steps on their first phases of reopening, Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) told a media briefing Wednesday, about five hours before Hogan spoke, that the first steps in his jurisdiction’s reopening probably won’t come until early next week.

“I feel pretty good about the numbers being where they are,” Elrich said — but he added that he was worried about a possible spike in cases following a big turnout on the beach and boardwalk at Ocean City during the Memorial Day weekend.

Hogan was asked several times at his news conference about the resistance of certain large counties to follow his guidelines on reopening, and replied, “I don’t want to criticize the local leaders.” But he did suggest at one point: “The county leaders aren’t paying attention to the state metrics. They seem to be making up their own plans.”

In a statement, Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Council 3, a public employee union, criticized Hogan’s move.

“With the Governor’s latest public announcement, it would seem the Governor has turned to taking cues from those groups demanding to ‘open Maryland’ versus public health experts,” Moran said.

He expressed concern that Hogan was jeopardizing the health of government workers — and in turn, their ability to operate and maintain state facilities.

“The Hogan administration has still failed to protect state employees, which in turn is a failure to protect the public,” Moran said.

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.