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COVID-19 in Maryland

As ‘Big 8’ Leaders Debate Re-Opening Order, Top Expert Calls it ‘Premature’

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball III (D) outside the Maryland State House. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Local leaders representing nearly 80% of Maryland’s population held a conference call on Wednesday to discuss Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s decision to lift most limits on commerce and social gatherings.

The Republican governor’s decision — announced Tuesday — came as a surprise to most, if not all, members of the so-called “Big 8,” a group that includes the leaders of the seven largest counties and Baltimore City.

Now they are trying to decide what their legal options are — and whether to heed Hogan’s call to shed the restrictions that were imposed over the last 12 months to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Two leaders announced after the meeting that they will follow the state’s lead, joining Harford County, which embraced the lifting of restrictions immediately. 

But a top public health expert called Hogan’s decision “premature.”

Joshua M. Sharfstein, vice dean for Public Health Practice and Community Engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said it would have been wiser to wait until the state’s vaccination program is further along and more is known about COVID-19 variants.

Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein

“There’s still a fair amount of virus in Maryland,” Sharfstein said in an interview. “That’s why some of the easing of restrictions before people are vaccinated seems premature.”

“We’re so close to getting a huge surge of vaccinations in this state and in this country,” he added. “I think it’s better to go step-by-step, rather than one gigantic leap.”

Hogan’s order lifts restrictions on dining, houses of worship, fitness centers, casinos and other venues, effective at 5 p.m. on Friday. Also Friday, the state will allow 50% capacity at larger venues like Camden Yards, conference centers, theaters, wedding halls, horse tracks, etc.

The state’s broad mask order and distancing requirements remain in effect.

The governor’s order also repeals the authority of local governments to impose stricter limits on commerce and social interaction by piggybacking on the state’s emergency powers — though they can potentially do so under their own authority.

The wording of that portion of the order confused local political leaders and the Maryland Association of Counties, and it sent county attorneys scrambling to determine what new framework might be needed.

On Tuesday, Hogan insisted that local subdivisions retained the right to keep tighter restrictions in place, but he urged them to “get in line” with the expanded freedoms.

The issue is moot in counties like Harford, where Executive Barry Glassman (R) announced immediately that he will open his economy to align with the governor’s orders on Friday.

But in the other Big 8 subdivisions, all run by Democrats, the rush to the law books has been a matter of urgency.

Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) panned Hogan’s action. In an interview, he said opening restaurants around the state “will trigger another spike” in infections.

“It’s a serious mistake,” Elrich (D) said. “It’s flat-out not safe. It’s the one place where masks come off. Under no scenario are restaurants a good idea.”

Hogan’s order does not allow bar patrons to stand. And it requires that restaurant tables be socially distanced.

Those mandates will blunt the impact of the governor’s action, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) predicted.

“What really protects people is the distancing requirements,” he said. “It’s going to keep restaurants well below 100% capacity, because normally their tables are much closer together.”

Pittman called it unlikely that there will be a “big public health impact” from allowing more people to dine in restaurants. He also said the impact on revenues will also be muted.

“It’s sort of a nothing-burger,” he said.

Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. (D) told reporters on Wednesday that “leaders in local government neither had a seat at the table… nor any advance notice.”

He said his team is “actively exploring” the meaning of the state’s order, the county’s “legal options,” and the latest pandemic data to determine whether it’s time to reopen.

In lifting restrictions on Tuesday, Hogan pointed to the state’s improving health metrics, including its low positivity rate, along with the expansion in the vaccination program. The governor’s new health adviser, Robert Redfield, the former head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under President Trump, said he supported Hogan’s actions.

Sharfstein, the public health expert at Hopkins — and a former state Health secretary under Gov. Martin J. O’Malley (D) — said it was disappointing to read in the media that local leaders were “blindsided” by the governor’s decision.

“These decisions should be coordinated among different levels of government,” he said.

Aides to Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) and Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott (D) said they were trying to determine what power they retain and what their legal options are. Frederick County Executive Jan M. Gardner (D) is expected to discuss Hogan’s order and its impact on the county at her weekly COVID-19 briefing Thursday.

Although some counties — including Montgomery — are virtually certain to seek to maintain at least some restrictions on commerce, Pittman announced late Wednesday that Anne Arundel “will align with new state policy.”

He will sign a new executive order retaining the current limits on social gathering, 10 persons indoors and 25 persons outdoors, by Friday, his office said. 

“I don’t have much appetite, this late in the battle, to fight this one,” he said.

Pittman will insist on limited gatherings because — without them — “a lot of people will think it’s time to have parties again.”

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball III (D) announced late Wednesday that his jurisdiction will also align with the state on reopenings, effective Friday at 5 p.m.  

In a news release, Ball said that the county’s coronavirus metrics have improved significantly from a post-holiday spike.

“We will continue watching our data very closely over the next two weeks, and if aligning with the Governor’s decision is detrimental to the health and welfare of our residents, we will not hesitate to reimpose restrictions,” he said.

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