Citing Lingering Concerns, Montgomery to Retain Some Restrictions on Retail

Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Montgomery County officials declined to embrace the state’s lifting of restrictions on business activity and social gatherings on Friday.

The County Council — sitting as the Board of Health — opted instead to keep indoor dining at 25% capacity for the next two weeks.

On March 26, Montgomery will go to 50% capacity, officials said.

Montgomery will align with the state on outdoor dining, lifting limits effective immediately.

They also voted to allow retail stores, personal services facilities such as hair and nail salons, fitness centers, bowling alleys and pools to operate at 25% now and at 50% starting March 26.

Under the order signed by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) on Tuesday, limits on restaurants and retail were lifted completely, while stadiums and concert venues were allowed to operate at 50% capacity.

Houses of worship in Montgomery can now conduct services at 50% capacity. Sports played outside can resume with up to 50 people, while indoor sports can be played with as many as 25 people.

In all cases, people must be distanced and masked.

County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) and members of the Council said they voted against a full embrace of the state’s action because too few people have been vaccinated and too much is unknown about the spread of virus variants.

Elrich said he had to decide “whose advice to follow.”

“I’m following Dr. [Anthony] Fauci and the CDC,” Elrich told reporters at an afternoon press conference, about an hour before the state’s order took effect.

“The message that was sent by the governor’s action is that COVID is over and you can go out and enjoy your St. Patrick’s Day at a bar or restaurant to your heart’s content,” said Earl Stoddard, director of the Montgomery County Office of Emergency Management & Homeland Security.

“We just don’t view this as ‘mission accomplished’ for COVID in Montgomery County.”

Under the county’s limited reopening:

  • Childcare may return to group sizes and staff-child ratios in sync with state regulations.
  • Outdoor gatherings of up to 50 people are allowed.
  • Indoor gatherings of up to 25 people are allowed.

Montgomery County’s Health Officer, Dr. Travis Gayles, said the delay in lifting restrictions gives retail and restaurant employees more time to get vaccinated.

“As we open up more businesses, we also put those employees of those respective places at risk, because they’re having increased contact with the public,” he said.

Echoing complaints voiced around the state since Tuesday, Montgomery leaders — all Democrats — were united in their criticism of Hogan’s decision to spring his decision with only 72 hours notice.

“People can disagree with how many people should be allowed in a bowling alley,” said Council President Tom Hucker (D). “Large organizations don’t work if senior management doesn’t communicate major decisions to their own employees and major partners… and get feedback and answer questions.”

Hogan’s spokesman, Mike Ricci, praised county officials for a “healthy conversation” about how to safely re-open, “the kind of which we have been having for a year.”

According to a memo sent to vaccination partners from the Maryland Department of Health on Friday, the Montgomery County Health Department will receive more doses over the next four weeks — 6,600 per week — than any jurisdiction in the state.

Prince George’s will get 5,700 per week, Baltimore County 5,200 and Baltimore City 3,700, according to the state. 

Elrich told reporters that the total number of doses coming into the county — a number that includes pharmacies, hospitals and other distribution sites, — “is smaller than they were a few weeks ago.”

Stoddard said the county is optimistic the state will locate a mass vaccination site at Montgomery College-Germantown, a location that would be convenient to residents of Frederick County.

Scott: We’re not there yet

Several Maryland’s counties opted this week to align with Hogan’s lifting of restrictions, while Prince George’s went part-way.

On Friday, Mayor Brandon M. Scott (D) defended his decision to retain the status quo in the city of Baltimore, where restrictions will remain in place. 

Speaking to reporters, the mayor cited the city’s COVID numbers and said he wants to see vaccination levels improve before restoring business capacities and social gatherings.

“Baltimore’s not in the clear yet,” he said. “We must stay the course and make responsible decisions.”

Scott said he supported the decision of the Baltimore Orioles to open Camden Yards to 25% capacity.

Baltimore Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa said the city’s infection rate has plateaued over the last four weeks, “so we’re not continuing to see that decreased trend that we were seeing at one point.”

She said Baltimore has experienced “a slight uptick in hospitalizations.”

In lifting restrictions on Tuesday, Hogan said the state as a whole is seeing improvements in its positivity rate and hospitalizations, and a steady increase in vaccinations.

Franchot faults Hogan and local leaders on restrictions 

Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) criticized Hogan and the local leaders who chose to follow his lead on Friday.

He said the country has yet to turn the corner on the pandemic — and that allowing expanded commerce and social gatherings risks a new spike in cases.

“Wishful thinking and press conferences and executive fiats are not going to accomplish what we want,” Franchot said in an interview. “It is a victory of momentary politics over safety.”

Franchot, the state’s four-term tax collector, is a candidate for governor in 2022. He has been a frequent Hogan ally, but he said the state’s testing regimen, unemployment insurance system struggles and the premature lifting of restrictions were all troubling signs.

He said he was “surprised” at the number of Democratic county executives who were following Hogan’s actions.

“To risk the greatest assets in the state — which are our people — right when we’re about to get, in several months, much more comprehensive vaccination, I’m just incredulous.”

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Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He's a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.