2020 | Coronavirus

UPDATED: Restaurants, businesses in county must limit capacity to 25%

Hours after County Council acts, governor rolls back statewide cap

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This story was updated at 7:15 p.m. Nov. 10, 2020, to add changes the state is putting in place.

Restaurants and businesses will need to cut their current capacity limit in half under a new executive order that reinstates some COVID-19 restrictions as the number of cases rises in Montgomery County.

The order, which goes into effect Tuesday at 5 p.m., requires capacity to be cut from 50% to 25% for restaurants, bars, bowling alleys, fitness centers, museums and art galleries, retail shops, religious facilities, and personal service businesses.

The County Council unanimously approved the order on Tuesday, along with other changes, including reducing the gathering limit from 50 to 25 people.

Later Tuesday, Gov. Larry Hogan issued an order for restaurants and bars to decrease from 75% capacity to 50% by 5 p.m. on Wednesday.

The state Department of Health also issued an immediate public health advisory strongly discouraging indoor gatherings of 25 people or more — but not including religious services.

Both state actions were based on contact tracing data that indicate family gatherings, house parties and indoor dining account for most new cases, Hogan said.

Montgomery County will use the stricter limits it put in place, rather than the state limits.

On Friday, Montgomery County suspended its Late Night Alcohol Service Permit program, which allowed restaurants and bars to serve alcohol on site between 10 p.m. and midnight. Because specific COVID-19 conditions were met that indicated an increased risk in cases, the program had to be suspended.

Under the newly approved version of an executive order, restaurants and bars must collect contact tracing information, allowing investigators to figure out who has been exposed to COVID-19.

Not all of the order’s changes for the county are more restrictive.

Escape rooms are now allowed to reopen, but with only six people per room and game. Ice rinks can open with certain size restrictions and a letter of approval from the county. Flag football was removed as a high-risk sport.

Playgrounds are also exempt from cleaning requirements under the new order.

During a public hearing on the order on Tuesday, Piotr Gajewski, the National Philharmonic’s music director and conductor in residence at The Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, asked the council to give the performance center an exception for a planned Nov. 17 production.

The concert will have no live audience, but it would be “impossible” for the center to pull off the performance with only 25 people, he said.

The council can’t amend an executive order sent by County Executive Marc Elrich or provide exceptions to it. It can only request that the executive amend the order and provide a new one for consideration.

Ada Villatoro, owner of a restaurant in Long Branch, asked the council to allow restaurants to keep 50% capacity, a level that is “comfortable” for her business.

Tom Ruder, a salon and spa chain owner, also asked the council to reconsider the new restriction for businesses that have been responding to the pandemic with strict precautions and regulations.

Aharon Garrett said his wedding is in less than a month and the gathering limit would require him to move the event to a different venue with little notice.

Council members sympathized with the concerns raised by the speakers, but said public health must remain the top priority.

“We are not taking these decisions lightly. … It is for the utmost safety of all our residents and employees of businesses, as well as the businesses and the patrons,” Council Member Craig Rice said. “I know this is life-changing. I know it has huge implications. …

“We’re very sad that these have impacts on your lives. Keep in mind that we are leading this effort because we want to try to continue to keep people safe.”

On Tuesday morning, 185 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported in the county, bringing the total number of cases the county has had to 27,731.

Since Oct. 21, 100 or more new cases have been reported each day as the spread has increased.

Council Vice President Tom Hucker said more federal and state assistance is needed to help keep local businesses afloat. He said he was also concerned that big national chains and “big-box” stores were treated the same as small retail shops and independent restaurants.

“I’d like to know more about how we’re focusing our inspectors on big-box stores and grocers that I, at least, frequently see not maintaining any customer count, not wiping down carts and providing hand sanitizer like a lot of restaurants,” he said. “They’re all entirely inside, unlike many of our restaurants that have large outdoor patios.”

Hucker said he was surprised to hear that Washington, D.C., and Prince George’s County would not be moving forward with similar restrictions.

“I really hope before we have additional restrictions, we have better coordination with our regional partners because we can’t solve this problem alone,” Hucker said.

Council Member Andrew Friedson said none of the order’s restrictions would work if there isn’t a regional strategy.

“I am hopeful that as we move forward, that we actually get the regional participation and cooperation. … That’s really County Executive Elrich who needs to lead that effort,” Friedson said. “Because in the absence of a regional strategy and absence of a regional approach, nothing that we do here is going to be able to make the impact that we need it to be to keep folks safe. We’re going to pay other consequences as a result.”

Council Member Will Jawando said — hours before Hogan’s afternoon press conference — that he hopes the governor puts more statewide restrictions in place and will communicate with regional health officials about his plans.

“He hasn’t been speaking with the county executives,” he said. “I think that is a dereliction of duty from Gov. Hogan. It makes our job hard.”

At his press conference, Hogan said state officials have had 22 calls with local officials — meetings that were held every two weeks.

Those meetings will now be weekly, he said.

The Washington Post reported that leaders of seven large state jurisdictions, including Elrich, wrote to Hogan on Nov. 6, urging more statewide restrictions. The letter alleged that it had been 169 days since Hogan last had a “statewide call with County leaders.”

Asked about that during Tuesday’s press conference, Hogan responded: “They haven’t brought up a single concern at any of those calls, including the one we had last week. I know that five of the ones — all Democrats by the way, and many of them looking at statewide office — sent a press release out, but they haven’t expressed any concerns to us. Nonetheless, we’re going to double the number of meetings [and] see if that will make them happier.”

Hogan also ordered state employees to return to teleworking and encouraged all employers to put teleworking in place, if possible.

Hogan said a new public health advisory advises residents to refrain from traveling to any state with a positivity rate above 10% or any state with average case rates above 20 per 100,000.

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