Maryland restaurants can resume indoor dining starting this Friday, and residents can return to gyms and fitness venues, casinos, malls and arcades one week later, on June 19, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) announced on Wednesday.
State Superintendent of Schools Karen B. Salmon gave county school districts the go-ahead to convene small-group summer classes, with priority given to those who have struggled with distance learning.
The announcements, made in tandem at a late-afternoon State House news conference, represent a major step in Maryland’s emergence from an unprecedented period of shutdowns triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The moves toward increased indoor activity — dining, gyms, schools and the rest — come with restrictions, Hogan said. Venues may operate only at 50% of their normal capacity and must follow CDC guidelines to avoid spreading the virus to customers or staff.
As with previous rollbacks of business and social restrictions, Maryland counties have the option of going at a slower pace, and in the wake of Hogan’s announcements, several of the state’s bigger jurisdictions indicated they would move on their own timeline.
Others said they needed time to assess their new options because they only learned of Hogan’s decisions as he unveiled them.
Even as he announced the eagerly-awaited reopening of restaurant dining areas, Hogan acknowledged that not everyone will immediately feel comfortable being in a confined space with strangers.
“I’ll be honest. I am over 60, I’m a cancer survivor. So I check a few boxes that are in the vulnerable population. I would not feel comfortable dining inside, and if I were going to a restaurant, I would prefer to sit outside, which is much safer,” he told reporters.
The state ordered restaurants to close in mid-March amid a steady climb in coronavirus infection rates here and around the country. Without the profits generated by beverage sales, many restaurateurs were fearful of their ability to survive on takeout orders alone.
“Restaurants, bars, caterers and other foodservice businesses have been hit extremely hard over the past three months and desperately needed to reopen,” said Marshall Weston Jr., CEO of the Restaurant Association of Maryland.
“Restaurants are ready to follow all of the precautionary guidelines and will do what is necessary to keep their employees and customers safe. When you are ready, restaurants will be ready too.”
Under the guidance issued by the Maryland Department of Health, establishments will not be allowed to offer buffets or self-serve items. And staff must be screened on a regular basis and undergo training.
Gyms, martial arts studios, casinos and malls will be limited to 50% of their normal occupancy. The same limit will apply to swimming pool use.
“This virus hasn’t changed,” said Deputy Health Secretary Fran Phillips. “It’s still contagious. It’s still sneaky. It takes days before symptoms appear. And people may be infectious before they realize they have symptoms.”
She said “nothing is zero risk” and urged Marylanders to continue to wear masks, observe social distancing, wash their hands frequently and carry hand sanitizer.
“Outdoors is safer than indoors,” she said.
Phillips said the state would make decisions about concerts, amateur and professional sports, and conventions later in the summer.
Hogan’s reopening decisions come as the state’s coronavirus crisis eases.
The number of ICU beds in use, which passed the 500 mark on April 20 and stayed above 500 throughout May, has dropped every day since June 1, according to the Department of Health.
On Wednesday, the state reported 392 intensive care beds in use.
Total beds in use for COVID-19 patients peaked on April 30 at 1,711. And except for an upward bump over the Memorial Day weekend, that metric has shown steady improvement as well. The state reported 955 COVID patients hospitalized as of Wednesday.
“Over the past week, Maryland has experienced the largest decline in positivity in America,” Hogan declared. “We have not only flattened the curve, we have actually crushed that curve in Maryland.”
On-site summer school to start
With local school systems now allowed to resume small-group summer school, Salmon urged educators to give priority to “students with the most intense learning needs.”
“Without an intense focus on these students, they would be among the last to recover,” she said.
Salmon said those who stood to benefit the most include students who have “struggled with distance learning,” younger children, those who are the farthest behind academically, students “who lack the capacity to work independently,” and those whose families can’t provide adequate technology.
“Longstanding gaps in educational opportunity and access have further exposed and widened during this COVID-19 crisis,” she said. “Now is the time for school systems to engage their equity plans.”
Local districts must submit plans to the state for keeping students and staff safe, and will be limited to 10-15 students per room.
Salmon also gave the go-ahead for non-public special education schools to serve students with disabilities. They may now bring back students at the same reduced-capacity limitations as summer school, with health and safety protocols established prior to reopening.
And she declared that all child-care providers may re-open as long as they follow the health guidelines listed on the state Department of Education’s website and adhere to class-size restrictions, with per-room limits and an overall cap of 15 children.
Outdoor high school sports practices may resume under social distancing guidelines, Salmon announced.
She said a decision on Phase 3 reopening — whether classroom instruction will resume in the fall — will be made later this summer.
Local leaders offer varying reactions
Maryland’s two largest jurisdictions, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, now account for half of the state’s 59,465 COVID-19 cases.
Prior to Hogan’s announcement, Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) announced some potential Phase 2 reopening as early as June 15. Among them: indoor retail and dining at reduced capacity (50% capacity or one person for every 200 square feet of space), gatherings of as many as 50 people, lap swimming in pools, and indoor worship services at 50% capacity.
“But we remind people that the studies all over the country list worship services as a high-risk event,” Elrich told a Council of Governments roundtable.
“How do you stop people.. from hugging each other? It’s just human instinct, and now you’re asking people to overcome human instinct, and so this can be challenging,” he added.
Elrich said the decision to advance to Phase 2 will hinge on local health data.
Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) will announce her Phase 2 decision at a news conference on Thursday morning.
Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. (D) said through a spokesman that he will review the governor’s executive order before deciding whether to follow it.
“Yet again, we learned today’s news at the same time as the rest of the public,” said Olszewski’s press secretary, Sean Naron. “We’re currently evaluating the new announcements made today and will identify our next steps after consulting with our public health team.”
Baltimore City officials did not immediately respond to the governor’s announcement, but Hogan called it “absurd” that the city is allowing large Black Lives Matters protests but is not allowing retailers to re-open. He said he would be calling Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D) to urge him to reconsider his policies.
Howard and Harford counties will fully adopt Hogan’s move to Phase 2.
“Howard County continues to see our key metrics trend in the right direction,” said County Executive Calvin Ball (D). “We now have a positivity rate of 6.4%. We will keep making reopening decisions based on our data and we are hopeful that this progress will be sustained throughout the coming months so that our community can recover.
Said Harford County Executive Barry Glassman (R): “I know that Harford County businesses are anxious to get started rebuilding their business. We will continue to interpret guidelines with as much flexibility as possible.”
A spokeswoman for Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner (D) said she will make decisions after consulting with local mayors.
A concern about protests
Hogan expressed a concern that people attending racial justice protests around the state may be at risk of coronavirus infection, and he urged everyone who has attended recent demonstrations to get tested “immediately.”
He said individuals who participated in such events should be cautious about interacting with older relatives and people with underlying health conditions.
In a Facebook post Wednesday, the progressive group Maryland Legislative Coalition reported that at least 82 cities and towns around the state have seen demonstrations since the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on Memorial Day. These range from full-blown protest marches with thousands of people to sign-waving demonstrations along a roadside.
Hogan said the state — which now has more than 120 sites in operation — would continue to expand testing opportunities, “to ensure that every single one of the thousands of protesters will have the opportunity to be tested.”
The Department of Health and the Maryland National Guard will open new “high-volume” testing sites throughout Baltimore, Hogan announced.
“A former FDA commissioner, Dr. Scott Gottlieb… cited a recent study which found a potential for a 250% increase in the rate of infection among those attending mass gatherings,” the governor added.
While Maryland’s overall numbers have been improving for some time, there is growing evidence that increases in business and social activity around the country, particularly since Memorial Day, are leading to spikes in COVID-19 infections.
A dozen states are seeing hospitalizations rise. Texas has hit multiple records and Arizona has asked hospitals to activate their emergency plans because of the recent spike.
Maryland will “pump the brakes” if key health metrics such as infections and hospitalization rates increase, Hogan said.