Montgomery County Council approves executive order allowing reopening on Monday

Council approves executive order allowing reopening on Monday

County developing plans for second, third phases

| Published:

The Montgomery County Council unanimously approved an executive order to begin lifting restrictions for reopening on Monday.

File photo

The Montgomery County Council on Friday unanimously approved an executive order for the county to begin entering a first phase of reopening on Monday at 6 a.m.

County Executive Marc Elrich signed the order late Thursday.

The order outlines more detailed information on the reopening provisions that Elrich announced at a press conference on Thursday.

A crowd attended Elrich’s press conference and shouted “reopen” and “open retail.” People booed Elrich and Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, as they tried to speak.

Several people yelled profanities and hurled insults at Elrich, including “Nazi,” “dictator,” “communist,” and “Fascist.” Some held signs that read “Free us please!” and “OPEN Montgomery County!”

The businesses and entities allowed to reopen in Montgomery County’s first phase under restrictions include:
● Restaurants and bars for limited outdoor seating
● Curbside service for retail stores
● Child care services are allowed to open for state-approved emergency programs for essential employees. It also applies to employees of businesses and other entities that can reopen in the first phase.
● Hair salons and barber shops can operate for hair-only appointments
● Car washes can do exterior cleaning only
● Manufacturing businesses can fully reopen with precautions and guidance
● Outdoor day camps and youth sports programs can resume under state guidelines that were outlined on Wednesday. LINK

The executive order lists physical distancing, cleaning and mask-wearing requirements.

Council Member Nancy Navarro said during the council’s virtual meeting Friday that she was “appalled by the behavior of the hecklers and the obscenities and offensive language that was on full display” at Thursday’s press conference.

“It was disruptive and offensive,” she said. “The county is following the guidelines set forth by the governor and taking a data-driven approach to reopening while adhering to CDC-recommended physical distancing measures in order to minimize health impacts of COVID-19 in our county.”

Council Member Andrew Friedson said everyone is trying to do their best to balance difficult issues in an unprecedented time and there is reasonable disagreement. But hurling insults at officials was not the way to express disagreement, he said.

“There is no place in our community or any community for referring to elected officials as ‘Nazis’ and other similar comments that were made and were deeply disturbing to many of us,” he said.

Council Member Will Jawando asked Gayles why the county is moving forward with reopening when it still hasn’t met every measure on its data dashboard, which lists the benchmarks for reopening.

The county’s Twitter feed posted a message on Thursday that “critical benchmarks to reduce the spread of COVID19 have been achieved, allowing the County to begin a gradual reopening.”

“Looking at the sum total of the data that we have, the trends are positively moving in the right direction,” Gayles said, adding that many of the metrics are close to meeting the goal of showing sustained decreases over a total period of 14 days.

Test positivity has dropped an average of 14% to 15% daily, he said, which has improved since it was at about 30% a month ago. Hospitalization rates have also improved, he said.

“There are some indicators that may not be 14 out of 14 [days], but they have made significant progress,” Gayles said. “They have sustained over some period of time and have shown significant improvement. … If there is any indication from a health perspective that we aren’t ready to launch, I would have no problems being very vocal and very transparent about that.”

The county has tested more than 4% of its population so far. County officials have a goal of testing 5% of the population every month.

Communication is fundamental to make sure that businesses and entities reopen safely, Navarro said.

“There’s going to be a lot of questions, a lot of confusion. We need to be crystal clear as to what it is that is occurring for our businesses, for our nonprofits, for our residents, for everybody involved,” she said.

Navarro and Council Member Gabe Albornoz both stressed the importance of getting information out to residents in multiple languages.

Dr. Earl Stoddard, executive director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said an organized team will go out into communities and make sure non-English-speaking business owners and residents understand the provisions under the order.

The team will likely be in action early next week, he said.

A website with details of the first reopening phase is expected to be launched on Friday. An email address will be included to allow people to send questions to county officials.

Gayles told the council that 65% of the deaths and 15% of the cases related to the coronavirus have come from nursing homes in the county.

“We have lots of initiatives and efforts aimed at protecting our vulnerable population,” he said. The concern is that someone from the outside could bring it into settings with vulnerable people, he added.

Council Member Craig Rice noted that the county’s largest-growing population sector is senior citizens.

As county officials determine the scopes of the second and third phases of reopening and develop guidance for those phases, Gayles said they are considering activities that might promote congregating and make it difficult for people to be physically distant.

Although pools were not included in the amenities allowed to reopen on Monday, Gayles said a future allowance might include only allowing lap swimming at first.

A second phase might allow indoor dining with physical distancing, he said.

Council Vice President Tom Hucker said the council should continue to place health and safety above political pressure.

“I don’t know that we need to perfectly align with D.C. or Prince George’s [County]. We need to be doing the best thing for our residents,” he said. “We don’t want to repeat what happened in Lassen County, California, where they loosened restrictions, then they had a resurgence [in cases] and had to tighten up the restrictions again.”

Hucker said the county should support businesses in other ways, such as expanding the Public Health Emergency Grant Program and implementing it more quickly .

Council President Sidney Katz and Council Member Hans Riemer said they would like outdoor religious services with physical distancing to be considered for a future phase.

Stoddard said county staff members expect to provide the council with drafts of the plans for second and third phases of reopening by Monday.

Three people spoke during a virtual public hearing on the executive order on Friday. They asked for the county to provide more details on the guidance and requirements for businesses that are allowed to move into the first reopening phase.

Patricia Swanson, vice president of governmental relations for the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, spoke on behalf of several chambers of commerce in the county. She acknowledged the “delicate balance” the county officials have in finding a path forward during the health crisis.

“Communication from the county is of the utmost importance,” she said, asking for more thorough and detailed guidelines for each type of business.

Business owners should be given a direct county contact to answer questions, as well as one place to find all of the information they need for figuring out how to reopen, Swanson said.

“While we understand that many of the decisions are being driven by the state, everyone should know when and what to prepare for,” she said.

Sue Seboda said curbside sales will not save retail.

“Please put forward a detailed explanation of how opening small businesses to 50% [capacity] puts the public at risk,” she said.

Seboda said Thursday’s press conference was a “disaster from just about every perspective.”

“I just really think that if we’re all going to be in this together, we really need to act like it,” she said.

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

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