This story was updated at 4:45 p.m. on Nov. 4, 2020, to include quotes from county officials and reflect additional proposed changes. It was updated again at 10:34 a.m. on Nov. 5, 2020, to include a postponement of the council’s vote on the order and new COVID-19 case figures. It was updated again at 12:02 p.m. on Nov. 5, 2020, to clarify a potential carryout change.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich has proposed cutting in half the capacity at restaurants and other businesses.
The maximum capacity for serving customers would drop from 50% to 25%. The order is scheduled on Thursday for a review from the County Council and a public hearing.
It was originally scheduled for a vote on Thursday — with the amended order taking effect on Friday — but the vote was postponed until Nov. 10. It was not immediately clear when the order would take effect.
On Friday, the county will no longer allow restaurants and bars to serve alcohol after 10 p.m. The county was allowing alcohol sales from 10 p.m. to midnight, but is returning the limit to 10 p.m. as the rate of new COVID-19 cases picks up.
“We waited as long as we possibly could to make sure the changes we’d seen in our case counts were sustained,” Dr. Earl Stoddard, executive director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said Wednesday during a media briefing.
The end of late-night alcohol sales is not part of the executive order.
Elrich’s latest proposed changes to a current COVID-19 executive order were not included in a previous announcement on Monday of changes the council would consider on Thursday.
Retail shops, museums, religious facilities and bowling alleys would also have a capacity limit of 25% or a specific number of people per square footage, whichever is lower.
Other potential restaurant changes include cutting off alcohol carry-out from restaurants at 10 p.m. and a clarification that all alcoholic beverages must be off tables and collected from patrons by 10 p.m.
The Late-Night Alcohol Service Permit program, which allowed businesses to serve alcohol until midnight, will be suspended starting Friday at 5 p.m. The program is suspended if the county reaches certain COVID-19 conditions, including averages for new cases and test positivity.
Restaurants would also be required to keep a daily record of indoor and outdoor dining customers for at least 30 days to assist with contact tracing. The information collected would include names, contact information and the date and time that each customer visited.
Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, said the county is experiencing a sustained increase in cases over the last several weeks.
On Thursday morning, the county had 226 new confirmed COVID-19 cases — the county’s largest daily increase in five months.
The county has had 26,777 cases, a 0.9% increase from Wednesday.
The new measures would hopefully help the county get back into a downward trend with new cases to protect hospital capacity, he said.
“We wouldn’t want to wait to start to see COVID-related fatalities [increase] before we take action,” he said.
Elrich said people should remain cautious and continue to wear a mask, maintain physical distances and wash their hands to prevent any continued spread.
“We’re hoping that by making revisions rather than outright closures, that we’ll be able to get a better handle on this,” he said.
With the holiday season approaching, Elrich warned that social and family gatherings continue to be high drivers of how people get infected with the coronavirus.
“People would be vastly better off if they did not do the traditional holiday gatherings,” he said.
How the colder months go with the chance of potentially more COVID-19 cases depends on how people behave, Elrich said.
“This is one thing where our behaviors pretty much determine the spread,” he said. “Without any outside intervention in the way of medicine, what we do either increases the spread — we increase the number of people that we come into contact with — or we take conscious actions to limit the number of people we come into contact with. … This is just something we have to do, whether you like it or not.”
Also under consideration in the order would be the reopening of escape rooms, which would be allowed to have a maximum of six people permitted for private games by appointment only.
Outdoor ice skating rinks might also be able to reopen with restrictions, but would have to receive a letter of approval from the county.
Other potential changes include flag football being removed as a high-risk sport and a clarification that a cap of 50 people at sports gatherings can only be exceeded to accommodate the presence of one parent or guardian per child participant. Only parents, guardians and immediate family of players are permitted to watch outdoor sports games.
“We don’t want to have to back ourselves in a corner where our only recourse is to do something that is going to be even more devastating to businesses,” Stoddard said. “We’d rather do this measure now and hopefully curb it before it gets out of control.”
Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.