Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan speaks during a press conference on Wednesday in Annapolis. Credit: Screenshot of live streamed press conference

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Wednesday offered nuggets of optimism to residents, saying officials are beginning to see the results of stringent social distancing measures to combat COVID-19.

He also announced a statewide order that shoppers wear face coverings at stores, staring Saturday. The statewide action follows a similar mandatory-mask measure that went into effect in Montgomery County this week, and is being implemented in other counties.

During a press conference, Hogan said the number of confirmed cases continues to grow each day, but hospitalization rates across the state are “starting to show signs of possibly stabilizing.” He said Maryland is ready to begin transitioning from a “mitigation phase” to planning a “gradual rollout of a recovery phase.”

“Everybody wants to get back to normal, but … we want to do so in a safe and smart way,” Hogan said. “The worst possible thing we could do is take actions too quickly and have a spike in cases.”

Since early March, Hogan has been rhythmically announcing aggressive measures to combat the spread of COVID-19, or the coronavirus. He shuttered school buildings and closed bars and restaurants to sit-down service. He closed non-essential businesses and implemented strict orders that people not congregate.

Returning to normal will be a gradual process, Hogan said, and there are several goals state officials aim to meet before easing restrictions. Goals include drastically increasing the state’s testing capability, increasing hospitals’ surge capacities, ensuring ample supplies of personal protective equipment for health care workers and ramping up contact tracing after a person tests positive for the disease.

“It is too soon to say, ‘Yes, we’re going to reopen everything,’ ” Hogan said, “but it’s not too soon to start laying out what that will look like and maybe start considering when the first steps might take place.”

In the coming weeks, Hogan said he expects Maryland to receive 4.5 million N95 masks for medical workers, and approximately 250 ventilators.

Hogan’s “aggressive” goal is to be able to test 10,000 people per day and to make sure there are at least 6,000 more hospital beds available statewide during a potential surge in cases. He mentioned the need to have some of that extra in or around the Silver Spring area, which has had three of the top five ZIP codes in the state for the number of positive cases.

Despite “cautious optimism,” Hogan said now would be premature and “the worst possible time” to begin allowing people to return to their normal routines.

If Maryland acts too soon, the state could see disastrous outcomes, Hogan said. He repeatedly pointed to New York, considered the epicenter of the United States’ outbreak, where more than 10,000 people have died, as a possible comparison.

Beginning Saturday, shoppers across the state will be required to wear face coverings in stores and on public transportation, Hogan said.

The order will apply to places such as grocery stores, pharmacies and convenience stores.

Employees must wear face coverings, too.

He gave a shout out to Montgomery County, among other jurisdictions, for already implementing similar requirements locally.

“Masks are something we may have to become more accustomed to in order to reopen our state,” Hogan said.

Deputy Health Secretary Fran Phillips said contract tracing — determining where people who have tested positive have been and who they have interacted with — has become easier in recent weeks because Marylanders are staying home and having fewer interactions with people outside their homes.

Before, when there were no social distancing guidelines, it was sometimes hard to get a comprehensive list of where patients had been in the two weeks prior to being tested, Phillips said. Now, people often know “exactly” where they have been, because it’s primarily been their homes. Then state officials can notify and quarantine people with whom the patient had interacted.

There are currently about 250 people conducting contact tracing operations, and the team will be increased to at least 1,000 people before social distancing restrictions are lifted, Hogan said.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com