Restaurants will once again be limited to outdoor dining, carryout and delivery to help them survive during the pandemic, as winter weather rolls into Montgomery County.
To slow the rapidly increasing spread of COVID-19, the County Council on Tuesday unanimously approved more restrictions, starting at 5 p.m.
Restaurants will have to completely close indoor dining. Outdoor dining, carryout, delivery and drive-through services will still be allowed.
Outdoor dining will only be allowed each day between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
Retail shops will have to reduce their capacity to a maximum of one person per 200 square feet of retail space, with a maximum limit of 150 people.
Large retail and big-box stores will have to submit a request for a letter of approval from the county to have a capacity greater than 150 after Dec. 23. The requests must be made by 5 p.m. on Monday.
The request must include a plan for monitoring the number of people in the store and physical distancing in check-out lines, entrances and exits.
Indoor sports gatherings must also reduce capacity to 10.
In addition, religious institutions will be required to submit a request for a letter of approval for outdoor services of more than 25 participants — down from the current maximum of 150 participants. Indoor capacity will remain at a maximum of 25%.
Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, said he understands the concerns about the restrictions, but his and other officials’ jobs are to provide health guidance based on the conditions of the pandemic.
“We are looking across the board and not focusing on any particular industry, unless there is particular data that recommends further restrictions there,” he told the County Council .
The county is seeing record levels of cases, higher than the increases during the beginning of the pandemic, he said, and hospitalizations are increasing in the county.
When asked what the next measure could be if cases and hospitalization continue to increase, Gayles said the county could go back to a stay-at-home order .
The county will track cases, hospitalizations and other conditions for about two or three weeks before considering an order, he said. Part of those observations will be looking for a sustained level of the conditions.
As of noon on Tuesday, three out of the county’s six hospitals had no vacancies within their intensive care units. One hospital reported having no vacancies for beds in acute care, according to Gayles.
There were 78 ICU beds occupied by COVID-19 patients in the county, with only five available staffed ICU beds. There were 186 beds in acute care occupied by COVID-19 patients, leaving 118 available staffed beds in the hospitals.
“Over the weekend, there was a time where five of the six hospitals did not have any vacancies within their intensive care units,” Gayles said.
Johns Hopkins University provides a weekly report on hospital projections to health officers in the state. The most recent report found that closing indoor restaurants and bars would potentially lead to a 20% to 30% reduction in hospital utilization, Gayles said.
Officials are concerned about hospitalizations for other needs, too, such as the capacity for other patients who need help for health problems other than COVID-19.
“The models show that in the absence of further action, we would not have any optimistic scenarios related to any hospital cases. We would break the system,” Gayles said.
Several residents spoke during a public hearing Tuesday afternoon, asking the council to reconsider the new restrictions for indoor dining, sports and big-box stores.
Resident Joe Bowers criticized the county’s decision to close indoor dining and reducing capacity for other businesses and called the restrictions “unconstitutional mandates.”
He suggested that council members donate their salaries to employees who might be laid off because of the new restrictions.
“I feel it’s way past the time that we start taking the steps to protect the vulnerable and stop these draconian measures,” he said. “Our county executive and health officer constantly refer to the science and data behind these decisions. We’d like to see the data that proves indoor dining and gyms are such a problem. You’re putting thousands of people out of work two weeks before Christmas.”
Christopher Sargent, a retail manager for Wegmans Food Markets, told the council that a limit of 150 people without a letter of approval is an “arbitrary cap.”
Wegmans operates a 124,000-square-foot store in Germantown that has 394 employees, according to Sargent.
Since Nov. 10, the store has limited its occupancy to 25% of the legal maximum, Sargent said. The proposed change of one person to 200 square feet, with a cap of 150 people, reduces the store’s allowable capacity to 5.5%.
“Reducing our occupancy by 95% will create long lines outdoors in cold weather during the holiday season and will likely lead to panic buying,” he said. “Montgomery County residents will leave the county to shop in the neighboring counties. … This will not help with the intended goal to reduce community spread.”
Cailey Locklair of the Maryland Retailers Association also addressed concerns about the 150-person cap on large retailers.
“The largest retailers could easily have 50 to 150 people working in stores during this time of year, which would immediately meet that threshold. … This would blatantly put larger stores at a significant disadvantage,” she said.
Council Member Nancy Navarro said during the meeting that the officials can either ignore the data and the fact that the county is breaking records in the number of cases, or act to help lessen the number of cases.
“I do not enjoy having to make these decisions,” she said. “I am very aware that we, as a body, will have to take into consideration particular assistance, particular initiatives, special appropriations to continue to support our residents.”
Council Member Will Jawando again called for Gov. Larry Hogan to issue a statewide stay-at-home order and said the county needs to increase its financial support to residents and businesses.
The new restrictions are needed because of businesses that are not following the guidelines, Council Member Craig Rice said during the meeting.
“There are retailers unfortunately who are getting caught up in this who are [following guidelines] well. … But, unfortunately, there are those who aren’t also. I just want to be very clear that that’s one of the things that drives what it is that we have to do,” he said. “Unfortunately, in government, it’s not always about the folks who may be stepping up and doing the right thing. It’s about making sure that those who are unfortunately aren’t doing it right — that we try to get a handle on this.”
Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.