Baltimore County residents and visitors will be required to wear masks in most indoor public places beginning on Thursday, County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. (D) announced on Tuesday.
The move, intended to reduce the spread of COVID-19, comes as the state experiences its first uptick in infections in several weeks.
Maryland’s caseload rise prompted health officers from the state’s largest counties to warn that restrictions which were lifted in mid-May, when the spread of the virus appeared to be under control, may need to be re-imposed.
The state’s increase in infections also led governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to impose a 14-day quarantine order on Maryland residents who travel to the tri-state area.
In announcing the mask order, Olszewski expressed frustration with Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), who he said broke off communication with leaders of the state’s most populous subdivisions “more than two months ago.”
Olszewski also said Maryland would benefit from a more uniform set of rules.
On Tuesday the state announced 860 new cases, the second highest total since June 6. Twenty new deaths were announced, the most since June 25.
In requiring that masks be worn by those age 2 and older in indoor public places, Olszewski said “the evidence here is indisputable” that face coverings slow the spread of coronavirus.
“The CDC is now calling face coverings a critical tool and one of the most powerful weapons we have in the fight against COVID-19. It’s regrettable that for some [people] mask-wearing has become politicized, because this isn’t about politics. It’s about public health. It’s about saving lives.”
In a letter to deputy state health secretary Fran Phillips on Monday, health directors from Maryland’s five largest counties and Baltimore City expressed concern about the rising level of infections, hospital use and death.
They urged the state to “take action to curb these trends, including revisiting the activities allowed under the current Phase 2 Executive orders,” a reference to Hogan’s decision to lift many restrictions on business activity and social interaction in late spring.
If the trends continue, local health directors wrote, counties may be forced to limit the size of gatherings, require face coverings be used in indoor and outdoors activities, ban indoor dining and bar service, close indoor amusement and recreational facilities, and restrict indoor mall activities.
“Our jurisdictions are prepared to act quickly to address these concerns but would prefer for the state to take action to create a unified, standardized approach to address this resurgence of cases,” the health officers wrote.
Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) agreed, and said his jurisdiction — the largest in Maryland — would remain cautious and continue to impose more restrictions on businesses and mobility than statewide guidelines call for.
“I support it. It’s hard for any of us to be isolated from events around us. There’s a lot of mobility in this region. I’m glad we’ve stayed where we are.”
On Tuesday morning, before Olszewski’s news conference, Hogan said he would not roll back restrictions “unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
Hogan spoke during an interview with former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb, part of a media blitz in advance of the release of his memoir.
“Our number of cases is slowly ratcheting up, but our positivity [rate] is actually not,” Hogan said. “Our hospitalizations are good. Our ICUs are good. Our death rate is down. We watch all of these numbers on a daily basis. They all are trending in the right direction, unlike most other states.”
Hogan said if the state sees “numbers that don’t look good, it’s gonna cause us to take whatever actions are necessary. … My goal is to try to keep the economy safely open, because the economic crisis is nearly as bad or just as bad as the health crisis.”
Olszewski said indoor dining “is not currently safe.” But he said he would not impose a county-level ban because residents would invariably cross into a neighboring community where restaurants are open, putting Baltimore County business owners at a disadvantage.
“Governor Hogan should limit establishments to outdoor dining, takeout and delivery. This is a public health imperative,” he said.
Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said the state’s guidelines allow local governments flexibility, and added that counties and cities need to be vigilant about ensuring public health rules are being followed.
“Local leaders and health officers continue to have the flexibility to make decisions regarding reopenings, but just as important, they have the authority — and the obligation — to close and sanction unsafe businesses that are not in compliance with public health orders,” Ricci said. “Rather than punish the vast majority of workers and businesses doing the right thing, strong enforcement against bad actors helps to ensure we can continue our recovery.”
But Olszewski also chastised Hogan for being “absent” from weekly briefings with the “Big 8,” the leaders of Maryland’s largest counties and the mayor of Baltimore City — and he urged him to return to their weekly dialogue.
“We need to hear directly from the governor on what he’s thinking. We need to be able to share with him what we’re seeing on the ground locally. And together we should develop an ongoing, coordinated response.”
At his news conference, Olszewski stressed that he was not speaking for the other local executives. But in an interview with Maryland Matters, he said local leaders are in regular communication and share many of the same frustrations.
“I do think there is a shared sentiment that the preference would be for these decisions to be coming down from the state. … And there is shared sense that we would welcome the opportunity to reengage the governor directly, just as we’re engaging each other.”
Baltimore County Health Officer Dr. Gregory Branch said the county’s increase in coronavirus cases is being driven by young adults.
“Between July 15-18, 49% of the covid-positive cases were between the ages of 15 to 34,” he said. “We cannot afford to be complacent.”
Branch urged everyone to wear masks, wash their hands, practice social distancing and avoid crowds. And he said people should be guided by what’s safe, not what’s allowed. “Just because you can, does not mean you should.”
It appears that an increase in social activity without mask use and distancing during the July 4 weekend may have sparked Maryland’s increase in cases.
New cases peaked at 1,784 on May 19. The low-point came on July 6, when there were 272. Since then there has been a steady rise.
Hospital use peaked in late April, declined through most of May, June and the first half of July.
On Tuesday, the Department of Health reported 484 beds in use, the most since June 26.