A vaccinator prepares to administer a COVID-19 vaccine at a county-run clinic at White Oak Recreation Center in early January. County officials detailed their plans to administer vaccines to 5- to 11-year-olds, which begin on Thursday. Credit: File Photo

This story was updated at 8:21 p.m. on April 28, 2021, to include comments from county officials.

Montgomery County’s mass vaccination site in Germantown will switch to an open appointment system on Saturday.

The change means residents will no longer be required to preregister for an appointment at the mass vaccination site at Montgomery College. Those who have preregistered will be contacted by Friday to set up an appointment.

Gov. Larry Hogan announced the transition to direct scheduling for the state’s mass vaccination sites at a press conference on Wednesday.

Appointments can be made online at covidvax.maryland.gov or by calling 855-634-6829.

Hogan also announced changes for mandates and restrictions, but jurisdictions still can enforce more strict regulations.

“[Local governments] can’t ignore the state requirements, but they can always be stricter. I wouldn’t advise that because this is the advice of the CDC and the state,” he said.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich released a statement Wednesday evening saying that the county would not follow the state’s path.

For much of the pandemic, Montgomery County has imposed closings and reopenings on a different schedule, after initially being one of the hardest-hit jurisdictions in the state. As the spread of COVID-19 has stabilized and declined locally, the county still has remained cautious and loosened restrictions more slowly.

Under Hogan’s new order, effective immediately, the outdoor mask mandate will be lifted, though unvaccinated residents are still strongly urged to wear a mask outdoors.

Masks and face coverings will still be required for large ticketed venues, as well as indoors for businesses and public transportation.

On Saturday, all restrictions will be lifted for outdoor dining. Standing service outdoors for bars and restaurants also can resume.

Restrictions on seated service and physical distancing will still be in place for indoor dining.

Elrich said in his statement Wednesday evening that the county would not loosen outdoor dining restrictions as Hogan outlined.

The county plans to stick with guidelines established by the county’s health department. However, the county health department is relying on the guidance of the state health department.

It was not immediately clear how the county and state would align. County Council Member Tom Hucker said in a phone interview Tuesday night that he wasn’t sure whether the council, acting as the Board of Health, would need to update the county’s health regulation.

“The county’s reopening plan is aligned with our vaccination metrics and this is the smartest, most strategic way to safely reopen all of businesses,” Elrich said. “Among 78 large counties and metro areas, Montgomery County has the lowest case rate per 100,000 east of the Mississippi River, according to New York Times data tracker. Our previous decisions have resulted in these low case rates, we should stay the same course.”

Hucker noted the same data and said the state should be following the county’s lead.

“The governor should be seeking guidance from our health officials because we’re doing far better than the state. … The data indicate that we have been making the right decision and by putting public health first, we are reducing the risk to our residents,” he said.

Elrich said the county will continue to follow the CDC guidelines on masking. The county mandates masks for people over age 2 under CDC or Maryland Department of Health guidelines (whichever is stricter), in food service establishments except when eating or drinking, and when engaged in sports (but not required for vigorous outdoor exercise during high heat and humidity).

“Despite his statement on the website, the Governor’s order regarding masks does not comport with the CDC guidelines,” Elrich said.

Hogan said additional actions are likely in the weeks ahead to return to a sense of normalcy.

“You’ve had plenty of time to get a vaccine. You can get one anywhere,” he said. “Everyone who’s been vaccinated can no longer continue to be held back because of the few who are refusing to.”

Montgomery County moved into the first phase of its new three-phase reopening plan on Tuesday, which expands capacity and gathering limits and loosens other restrictions.

Each of the reopening phases in the plan is triggered by the county reaching a certain threshold with vaccinations.

The first phase moved forward because 50% of the county’s population received a first dose of a coronavirus vaccine. The second phase, which will further lift restrictions, will start when 60% of the population has received a first dose.

The third phase, which will lift all local restrictions and switch to only state guidelines, will start when 50% of the county’s population has been fully vaccinated with a second dose or the one-dose J&J vaccine.

Officials have estimated that it will take two to three weeks to reach the second phase and four to six weeks to reach the third phase.

But those timelines depend on people following up to receive a second dose and consistent or increased deliveries of vaccine doses from the state, according to Gayles.

In Montgomery County, about 6.3% of residents who received a first dose have not followed up and received a second dose to be fully vaccinated after 42 days since receiving a first dose, Gayles said.

Broken down by race and ethnicity, the residents who have not come back are: 3% of Hispanic residents, 4% of Asian residents, 5.7% of Black residents, and 6.1% of white residents.

The following changes were made under the first phase:
● Gathering limits increase to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors (previously 25 indoors and 50 outdoors)
● Businesses limited to 25% capacity move to 50% capacity and can sell concessions with social distancing
● Camps can move to the gathering limits of 50 indoors and 100 outdoors (previously 25 indoors and 50 outdoors)
● Escape rooms — in which groups try to solve clues to earn their way out of an enclosed area — can allow 10 people per game (previously 6 people per private game)
● Museums and galleries can reopen touch exhibits
● Malls can reopen pedestrian concourses and return tables and chairs inside
● Sports can move to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors, with a similar number of spectators (previously 25 indoors and 50 outdoors)

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.