Tattoo parlors, tanning salons, massage parlors, and other services will now be allowed to operate under phase 2 of Montgomery County’s reopening.
The County Council unanimously approved County Executive Marc Elrich’s amended executive order on Tuesday permitting more businesses to reopen, but placing more restrictions on others. The order is effective at noon on Wednesday.
One restriction keeps restaurants and bars from selling alcohol after 10 p.m. Recent contact tracing data has shown that when restaurants and bars serve alcohol in the evening, there has been less physical distancing.
Other changes in the order involve:
● Allowing waxing, threading, electrolysis and facial services by appointment only
● Ice skating rinks will remain closed, but can be used as a fitness center for individual or group training
● Hookah bars, vape shops and cigar bars can only open to sell retail products. Smoking inside is not allowed.
● Tables, chairs and benches must be removed from malls to stop people from congregating
● An increased capacity limit of 150 people for outdoor religious services, up from 50
● Soccer and flag football are prohibited, but kayaking and canoeing are allowed with restrictions
At a public hearing on Tuesday, several residents and business owners said the amended order was not flexible enough.
John Sahakian of Quincy’s Bar and Grille Group said the alcohol restriction is “arbitrary.”
“No one’s going to come at 10 to just sit there and eat some food . It’s just not going to happen,” he said. “I think there’s a compromise. I think there’s a different way of doing it, either through enforcement or maybe cutting the hours back a little bit, but not 10 p.m. I think at the end of the day, that’s going to be a dagger for a lot of restaurants.”
Justine Mwebaza said her Wheaton restaurant would have to shut down if it couldn’t sell alcohol after 10 p.m.
“If we cannot sell alcohol after 10, then there will be no reason for anyone to come to my restaurant. To do what?,” she said. “Most people coming out — they’re not just coming to eat, they’re coming to relax in a safe place. … That’s as good as telling us to shut down and only do carryout.”
The Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce opposes the restriction on serving alcohol past 10 p.m., said Ginanne Italiano, the president and CEO.
“As the majority of the restaurant and bars have been extremely cautious in regards to safety, and most are not open past 11 p.m., this mandate primarily targets the minimal nightlife that is left in the urban areas,” she said, adding that the chamber doesn’t see how the new change would make the county safer.
Italiano said the organization disagreed with the county not being in sync with the state as far as allowing hotels and conference centers with limitedcapacity. The county’s order limits conferences and events to 50 people, while the state’s limit is at 50% capacity.
“Limiting attendees to 50 people vs. 50% keeps these facilities from having any major meetings or events, which is their bread and butter,” she said. “Rather, their customers are now going to surrounding jurisdictions and employees are still unemployed.”
Jane Redicker, president and CEO of the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce, agreed.
Theaters and performance venues that have been allowed to only reopen for religious services should be allowed to host other events that could be managed safely, too, she said.
“Representatives of these industries have reached out to the county executive and health officer but to no avail,” she said. “These businesses that are important parts of our economy have had no income since the middle of March and have spent any PPP money that they may have received from the government.” PPP refers to the federal Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses to keep employees on payroll.
She urged the council to create a targeted financial assistance package for businesses not allowed to reopen under the order.
Matthew Libber, executive director of the Maryland SoccerPlex, disagreed with the high-risk classification of soccer. He said the state does not consider it high-risk.
“Right now, you can drive 15 minutes up 270 and play a soccer tournament or lacrosse tournament or any other sport in Frederick County. You just can’t do it in Montgomery County,” he said. “All we want is to be on a level playing field with everybody else in the state.”
He said it’s unfair to allow outdoor religious services of up to 150 people, but prohibiting that capacity for sporting events, weddings and art shows.
Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, said during the meeting that different sources have different ideas about the risk of soccer.
“As with everything, as information comes in and gets redefined, we’re happy to take a look at that as an opportunity to potentially [change restrictions] with new information that has come in and has changed that categorization of soccer,” he said.
Gayles said the determination of soccer as a higher risk activity was based on NCAA guidelines and the physical contact involved in the sport.
Ahmed Kamel, owner of Vibes hookah bar in Rockville, said he was disappointed his business could not reopen further under the guidelines.
He said his business is similar to a bar or restaurant, adding that other hookah lounges in the state have been allowed to reopen under safety guidelines.
He asked the council to reconsider the powers given to the health department, which is being “unconstitutional” and officials who are not elected have too much power.
Critics of Gayles’ decision to prohibit Montgomery County private schools from reopening used the same argument. Gov. Larry Hogan later issued his own order that overturned Gayles’ directive.
County attorneys noted that Elrich could further amend his order that has more restrictions than the state has, but the council would have to approve them.
Several council members expressed concern over the order’s restriction on alcohol service.
Council Member Will Jawando noted that the council is not able to amend the order itself, and can only approve or disapprove it.
“I understand the concern here. … I know the county executive and the health officer are going to look into this,” Jawando said. “I just think this is something we really want to think about and come back to in short order if we see our numbers holding.”
Council Vice President Tom Hucker said the restriction on alcohol service seemed too restrictive. He said that instead, enhanced and targeted enforcement, as well as higher penalties, should be used for restaurants and bars that repeatedly get warnings and citations.
“Those are the ones I would go back and not just warn and cite them, I cite them and try to get a higher penalty, or more frequent citations, rather than affecting everyone else,” he said.
Council Member Andrew Friedson agreed that soccer and the alcohol service restrictions should be revisited.
“I do share the view that Council Member Hucker shared — the scalpel vs. hatchet approach,” he said.
“This is a couple handful of businesses that are a problem — a couple dozen even,” he said. “We shouldn’t penalize the thousands of businesses that are impacted by it. We should be making things easy for folks to do the right thing and handle things in the right way.”
Gayles addressed Hogan’s orders allowing private schools to decide for themselves whether to reopen for the academic year.
He said county officials would work with private schools to create contingency and safety plans. The health department is still trying to get an understanding of how reopening private schools would impact the rest of the county and COVID-19 conditions, he said.
The schools need to operate in a setting of low community transmission and low daily caseloads, but the county isn’t there yet, he said.
For the county, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, low transmission would be 8 to 9 cases a day and moderate transmission is around 38 cases a day, he said. The county has been adding an average of about 90 cases a day for the past month.
“Unfortunately, what we have seen, which gives us all pause, is we have seen time and time again in the last week, when school systems [elsewhere] have been tempted to reopen, they have had to close down because cases are [heightening]. … I do not think it’s acceptable to go in and say, ‘Hey, if some cases happen, the kids will be OK and then they’ll get over it and move forward,’” he said.
Students, staff members, teachers, administrators and their families are all put at risk, Gayles said.
Council Member Craig Rice said Hogan’s order relayed a notion that it’s alright for those in private school to be more at risk than those in public school.
“The governor has always been prolific in terms of his absolute support for private over public,” he said, adding that there’s heightened risk with people in private schools becoming superspreaders of the coronavirus.
Jawando said he’s been frustrated that Hogan has allowed local control, but not when it’s “politically convenient.”
Jawando said he has daughters in both public and private schools.
“This is a health order from Dr. Gayles to protect our students. I have an autistic daughter. You think I don’t want her in school? Of course we all want people in school,” he said. “The idea that some of us don’t want our kids in school is ridiculous. Everyone here wants our kids in school and wants them to be supported and not socially isolated.”
Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.