Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) decided he needed to tighten restrictions on restaurants and social gatherings after failing to convince leaders in neighboring jurisdictions to do likewise, a top aide said on Thursday.
In testimony before the County Council, the aide, Emergency Management & Homeland Security Director Earl Stoddard, predicted that other jurisdictions would quickly follow the county’s lead, as a way of slowing a long-feared increase in COVID-19 infections that has begun to hit the region and the state.
That assurance did not completely satisfy members of the panel.
The Council, sitting as the Board of Health, deferred a vote on Elrich’s proposed executive order until next week, to give his staff time to consider tweaks to the plan — and to give county businesses greater opportunity to prepare.
Elrich’s plan, unveiled Wednesday, would have cut capacity at restaurants and many other indoor establishments from 50% to 25% effective Friday. He also proposed a cap on social gatherings of 25 people.
But lawmakers declined to act on the executive’s timetable after getting pushback from hard-hit small business-owners, particularly restaurateurs, who worried about a sudden drop-off in sales.
“It takes me literally 11 minutes door-to-door to drive to the District of Columbia from my house. It takes me 25 minutes to drive to Prince George’s County,” said Councilmember Gabriel Albornoz (D). “While I agree in principle with the decision for us to scale back, if other local jurisdictions don’t follow suit, then it very much limits the impact of our scaling back.”
Stoddard said Elrich “has been attempting to recruit other partners in this [but] there’s just a lot of trepidation.”
“We’ve been holding back on this recommendation for weeks, trying to recruit other people to… move forward with this together, and we have not been able to get partnerships on this,” he added. “We just cannot sit here… while our residents are becoming infected and potentially worse.”
On Thursday, the county’s seven-day average case count stood at 14.8 for every 100,000 residents, an increase of 57% in the last six weeks. Other jurisdictions have seen comparable increases.
On Thursday, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) imposed a new testing requirement on residents who travel to any of the 42 states where cases are surging, with exceptions.
Stoddard said it would be “better from a public health perspective” if Montgomery and its neighbors acted in unison, so that residents would be less inclined to cross boundaries to dine out or shop. He said Elrich’s decision to act was already spurring behind-the-scenes action in neighboring counties, which he declined to identify.
“I do not suspect by next week we will be alone on this issue,” he said. “Our moving forward, to actually type out an executive order, has made it more real for our neighboring jurisdictions, and it has caused them to accelerate their processes.”
Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, said that while leaders throughout the region are seeing similar increases in COVID-19 infections and hospital bed use, responses can vary for a variety of reasons.
“We certainly recognize that there is lots of diversity and [in] the surveillance realities of different communities, as well as different political realities,” he said. “Even if [health officer] recommendations and guidance is the same, who’s listening to that and how they’re hearing it is very different.”
The Montgomery Council is expected to hold a public hearing and a vote on Elrich’s recommendations next week.
“I’m confident, when we review this on Tuesday with the amended language, it’s going to go forward,” Albornoz said. “We want to continue to be a leader and set the pace, as we do in so many other areas.”
Frederick, Howard leaders urge vigilance
Frederick County Executive Jan H. Gardner (D) met with County Council leaders on Thursday to discuss possible steps to contain the spread of the virus.
With “health metrics that are all heading in the wrong direction,” Gardner said she and lawmakers may convene the Board of Health as early as next week.
While no decisions have been made, she stressed, “topics for consideration will likely include limiting the size of social gatherings both indoors and outdoors, considering closing certain venues early similar to what had been done elsewhere, and increasing enforcement for compliance with mask wearing.”
“There is a desire to link decisions to metrics,” she added. “It is not my preference or desire to limit business activities or roll back openings. We want to ramp up efforts for compliance with mask wearing and other public health guidance.”
Echoing leaders of other counties, Gardner said “the public is clearly weary of COVID restrictions and had let their guard down” in recent weeks.
Speaking at a news conference where she “raised the alarm” about the latest numbers, Gardner stressed the importance of wearing masks in public and social distancing. “We need the public to hear the message and do their part to protect public health and keep the economy open.”
Howard County reported 82 new infections on Thursday, the second highest total since the onset of the virus.
County Executive Calvin Ball (D) said the spike represents “a wake-up call.”
“We need to resume the personal practices our residents embraced this Spring to slow the spread of this virus and keep one another safe,” he said.
The county’s health officer, Dr. Maura Rossman, called the increase in Howard’s positivity rate “concerning.”
“Howard County’s data is favorable compared to surrounding jurisdictions but likely the situation is not stable,” she said.