This story was updated at 7:19 p.m. on Dec. 9, 2020, to include additional details and comments from County Council members.
Indoor dining at restaurants in Montgomery County could soon be shut down, a new measure to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich announced his proposal on Wednesday afternoon during a media briefing with county, city and medical officials across the state. He said he is proposing more COVID-19 restrictions for the county, including closing indoor dining, which is now allowed but only with limits on capacity.
The proposal was sent to the council and will have to be approved. If approved by the County Council on Tuesday, the restrictions would go into effect at 5 p.m. that day.
Outdoor dining, carryout and delivery would continue to be allowed. Food and beverages would only be allowed to be served outdoors between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Delivery and carryout could continue outside of those hours.
The only exception for indoor dining would be food services in licensed health care facilities under distancing and cleaning guidelines.
The media briefing with county and medical officials was the first that the executives have hosted together — an effort to speak in a unified voice about bringing down cases through wearing face coverings, washing hands and distancing from others.
In Montgomery County, there have been 37,194 known cases — 343 of which were added Wednesday morning.
“We have seen these numbers before. We faced numbers like these in the spring,” Elrich said. “Back then, the state and counties largely closed. The actions that the governor took earlier than other states led to a marked turnaround and substantial improvement in our numbers.”
Now numbers are climbing again, he said, and the county’s positivity rate is twice as high as it was this summer.
“The only control over the spread of this virus are our own behaviors. We’re it, folks,” Elrich said, adding that the state needs to revisit some further restrictions while the wait continues on a vaccine.
If restaurants set up a temporary outdoor structure for the winter, such as a tent, at least one side of the structure must remain open, if the structure is rectangle. Structures that aren’t rectangles would have to be approved by the county.
The total capacity for temporary outdoor structures would be limited to one table per 50 square feet. There would need to be a minimum of six feet between people seated at different tables.
Capacity in large retail stores would be restricted to one person per 200 square feet and a total limit of 150 people.
Nonprofessional sports would be limited to 10 people indoors. Religious organizations can have up to 25 people outdoors without county approval. More could be allowed if they received prior approval from the county.
Indoor gatherings would be limited at no more than 10 people and outdoor gatherings would continue to be restricted at 25 people.
“We’re determined to do everything we can to bend the curve again,” Elrich said. “We know how to do it. We’ve done it before. We’re going to do it again. We’re going to make sure that as many people get to enjoy the holidays that were pretty much ruined for us this year — they’re going to get to enjoy these holidays next year. That’s my goal.”
Other jurisdictions have also turned their attention to more restrictions. Baltimore City Mayor Brandon Scott has ordered indoor and outdoor dining to close on Friday, and Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman is expected to announce more restrictions on Thursday.
On Nov. 24, Montgomery County reduced indoor gathering limits from 25 to 10 and announced a requirement for residents to wear face coverings outdoors when they are likely to come into contact with another person.
Two weeks prior to that change, the county ordered that maximum capacity drop from 50% to 25% for restaurants, bars, bowling alleys, fitness centers, museums and art galleries, retail shops, religious facilities, and personal service businesses.
Council Member Will Jawando previously called on Gov. Larry Hogan to place a temporary stay-at-home order across the state, and told Bethesda Beat on Wednesday afternoon that he still supports that call.
“Why aren’t we shutting down? What we’re seeing right now is the effect of Thanksgiving. … We can get through the next four-plus weeks with [a stay-at-home order] and then slowly start to do a phased reopening,” he said.
The order could be in place while the county waits on the vaccine — distribution is expected to start this month for some — and through the holidays, Jawando said.
It could also help children get back to school more quickly and into a more safe environment, he said.
“The sooner we shut down and stop the spread, the sooner kids can get back to school,” he said.
Council Member Hans Riemer told Bethesda Beat Wednesday evening that a stay-at-home order could be in the county’s future if conditions don’t improve. A statewide and regional order would be best, but the county could take action on its own if needed, he said.
“A county stay-at-home order is kind of the last resort. … I’m not even sure how much this order [with proposed restrictions] is going to slow the numbers. I think this is sort of the last measure before the stay-at-home order,” he said. “There’s not much left to do after this.”
Riemer questioned why nail salons, for example, would still be allowed to operate, even with the restrictions in place. He also said there still seems to be “generous” allowances for indoor capacity for religious facilities and big-box stores.
“There’s still a fair number of people who can get into a big-box store,” he said.
County Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz told Bethesda Beat Wednesday afternoon that the proposed restrictions seem to strike a balance and he hopes more restrictions won’t be necessary.
“We know it impacts our residents and our business owners and our economy. … I do think we’re going to have to be thoughtful in how this is rolled out because we saw in the first surge, the long lines to get into Costco and grocery stores,” he said. “We’re going to have to try to mitigate that as much as we can.”
Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.