On Reopenings, Counties Are All Over the Map

    Maryland counties are rolling out new local orders lifting or keeping capacity limits, as most state COVID-19 restrictions on business activity and social gatherings will expire Friday. Photo from Pexels.com.

    One day before the state lifts most COVID-19 restrictions on business activity and social gatherings, local leaders in Maryland’s largest jurisdictions opted to go in very different directions — some choosing to align their counties with the governor’s order, others going part-way.

    Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott (D) announced that the city, where capacity limits are set at 25% for indoor dining and retail and 50% for outdoor, would not change any of its rules for now.

    And one leader — Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) — decided he wasn’t ready to announce his decision. 

    The flurry of announcements came two days after Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) signed  an order removing capacity limits and allowing fans to return to Camden Yards and other venues — a move that top local officials all said caught them off-guard.

    The broad range of actions underscored the complex nature of the challenge the governor thrust their way — first having to sort out legal questions raised by the wording of his executive order, then having to weigh an array of public health, economic and political considerations.

    Of the jurisdictions taking action on Thursday, Baltimore County and Frederick County moved to align themselves most closely with the state order, which takes effect Friday at 5 p.m.

    That order:

    • lifts capacity limits on restaurants, retail outlets, houses of worship, fitness centers, casinos, hair and nail salons, and indoor recreational establishments like bowling alleys;
    • allows large outdoor and indoor venues — such as theaters, concert halls, convention centers and wedding facilities — to open at 50%, along with race tracks and stadiums;
    • lifts quarantine requirements following out-of-state travel, a largely-ignored provision of state law.

    The state’s mask mandate remains in full effect, as do requirements that patrons in restaurants and other businesses be distanced. Because of the distancing requirements, political and businesses leaders have suggested that the practical impact of Hogan’s decision may be limited.

    Leaders who opted to follow the state’s order exhibited scant enthusiasm for the actions they were taking.

    “While we remain concerned that communities across our state have seen key metrics level off in recent days, I have repeatedly said that the state’s patchwork approach creates confusion and limits our ability to significantly impact public health,” Baltimore County Executive Johnny A. Olszewski Jr. (D).

    “This pandemic is not over and we cannot let our guard down now,” he added.

    Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner (D) said that “hospitalizations and our deaths remain higher than we would like them to be.”

    “While we are making progress with improved health metrics and our vaccination efforts… the virus is still with us,” she added. “But there is light at the end of the tunnel. We must all be smart and do our part to contain the spread of the virus.”

    A limit on social gatherings in Frederick County — 25 people, indoors and outdoors — remains in effect.

    Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) said her legal team had to consult with the state Attorney General’s office to resolve confusion surrounding Hogan’s order — in particular a provision that appeared to remove the ability of local governments to use the governor’s emergency declaration to impose rules stricter than the state’s.

    She signed an order allowing businesses and churches to go to 50% capacity, effective Friday at 5 p.m. Indoor gatherings will be limited to 20 people; outdoor gatherings to 50 people. Masks and distancing orders remain in effect.

    “Because COVID-19 effected us so deeply, our reopening will move at a different pace than the rest of the state,” she told reporters. “We will not throw caution to the wind.”

    Taking pains not to criticize Hogan publicly, Alsobrooks called advance notice of big state policy shifts “helpful.” On Wednesday, the state and county jointly announced steps to boost the vaccination rate in Prince George’s. 

    The counties that opted on Thursday to align themselves with the state’s re-opening joined Howard, Anne Arundel and Harford, jurisdictions that announced similar decisions earlier in the week.

    In deciding to reject the state’s reopening completely, Scott spokesman Stefanie M. Mavronis said the COVID data in Baltimore “clearly do not warrant a reopening at the Governor’s pace at this time.”

    “The Mayor remains confident in Baltimore’s authority to maintain the common sense, local public health mandates currently in place as we continue to navigate this pandemic,” she added.

    Scott is scheduled to brief reporters Friday at 2 p.m.

    St. Patrick’s Day is Wednesday — and government and business leaders alike are concerned about the dangers posed by large crowds of booze-fueled revelers gathering in close contact.

    Elrich, head of Maryland’s largest county, was scheduled to brief reporters Thursday afternoon, but his press conference was abruptly cancelled, without explanation, shortly after it was to begin.

    An aide said later that the executive’s team is “still finalizing how we will approach this situation.” He’s now scheduled to speak publicly at 2 p.m. on Friday.

    On Tuesday, Elrich called Hogan’s decision “a serious mistake.”

    “They’re going to trigger another spike [in infections] before the vaccines get widely disseminated,” he told Maryland Matters.

    Pointing to the expected surge in vaccine supplies and the unknown impact of COVID-19 variants, Elrich said it would be more prudent to wait a bit longer before reopening the economy.

    Hogan’s order “strikes me as way, way premature and mostly wrong,” he said.

    Former state Senator David Harrington (D), the head of the Prince George’s County Chamber of Commerce, said the range in local reaction underscored the “really complex” public health and economic considerations that need to be balanced on a tight timeframe.

    “Now is not the time to relax. This is the time to attack it with all the vigor that we can,” he said. “You want to get [the infection rate] down before you start relaxing things.”

    “It’s not a touchdown” when players spike the football before getting to the end zone, he added.

    During an online interview with Politico on Thursday, Hogan said, “This is not behind us. There are some scary variants out there and the vaccines aren’t quite here yet.”

    He noted that — while his order raises business capacity limits — it keeps masking and distancing requirements in effect, “unlike some other states.”

    He said his reopening order reflected a desire to balance public health with “our economic recovery and putting people back to work.”

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