County Executive Marc Elrich and other health officials may reinstate mask mandates for public transportation or other indoor settings — depending on if coronavirus cases and hospitalizations keep rising in the coming weeks.
The county’s COVID-dashboard shows that on April 1, there were 52.63 cases per 100,000 residents, over a seven-day period. As of Wednesday, that had risen to 134.39 cases per 100,000 residents, over a seven-day period. Hospitalizations for those with COVID-19 have not increased as much — on April 1, there were 1.2 COVID-19 hospital admissions per 100,000 residents, over a seven-day total. By Wednesday, that is at 2.1 COVID-19 hospital admissions per 100,000 residents, over a seven-day total.
Elrich told reporters during a news briefing on Wednesday that he disagreed with a federal judge’s decision to strike down the extension of a mask mandate on public transportation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had extended the federal mask mandate on public transportation through May 3. But Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, a federal judge in Florida appointed by former U.S. President Donald Trump, struck down the extension in a recent ruling.
In a news release Tuesday, Elrich and other county officials said that masks weren’t required on Ride On buses, effectively immediately. They and other officials strongly encouraged masks on buses.
Elrich said in the Wednesday news briefing that the decision to strike down the ruling was wrong and not in the interest of public health. He added that he and officials decided to follow regional decisions on masking on transit, as WMATA announced that masks would no longer be required on Metro or Metrobuses.
“Let’s be blunt: This was a bad ruling by a Trump-appointed judge who has absolutely zero expertise in public health, [and] is imposing their ideology on public health, which is absolutely inappropriate,” Elrich said. “And they’re doing this to overrule our nation’s public health experts. This decision undermines potential tools available for public health officials for future surges or future diseases. In short, this ruling is nuts.”
Montgomery County Department of Transportation Director Chris Conklin wrote in a prepared statement that county officials encourage people to still wear masks on public transportation, and that drivers on Ride On buses will still provide them.
Will masking come back on transit and in other settings?
Elrich and county officials said that if COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise in the coming days and weeks, then a mask mandate on public transportation and other settings would be considered.
As of Wednesday, the county’s COVID-19 dashboard showed the “Community Level” status, as defined by the CDC, was low. It also showed that 64.9% of inpatient beds in area hospitals were occupied (low), and that 2.6% of community hospital beds were occupied with people with COVID-19 (very low).
On April 1, those metrics stood at 64.7% and 1.5%, respectively.
If the virus continues to spread, Elrich said he and staff would consider a mask mandate before other restrictive measures like limiting hours or capacity inside businesses.
“If cases go up, and it’s problematic, I have no qualms at all about reinstating mask mandates,” Elrich said. “I thought they were the safest thing, [and] most common sense thing we can do, and I still see a lot of residents continuing to wear masks when they go out.”
Elrich and Sean O’Donnell, the county’s public health emergency preparedness manager, did not have a specific metric or data point in mind that would trigger when a mandate would go into effect.
O’Donnell told reporters that it would depend on where the virus is spreading, how contagious any variants are, how many people are hospitalized, and other factors. Protection through vaccines and other treatments is also a factor, he added.
Ultimately, county health officials are concerned with how much severe illness they are seeing, compared with the overall transmission of COVID-19, O’Donnell added.
The county would also consider imposing mask mandates in settings like nursing homes, shelters and other congregate settings where people are more at-risk, and some already are, O’Donnell said. But he added that county officials aren’t seeing an increase in severe illness to require masks in other places, he said.
Steve Bohnel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org