COVID-19 cases have been increasing across the state while Montgomery County’s have plateaued to about 70 to 80 new cases a day. But now officials are considering whether to reinstate some restrictions to try to decrease the virus’s spread and reduce cases.
As the increase of COVID-19 cases has accelerated in recent weeks, county officials have suggested that the state slow down, or even reverse, some of its reopening.
At a media briefing Thursday, Dr. Travis Gayles, Montgomery County’s health officer, said he’s concerned about the increase of coronavirus cases in Maryland and surrounding regions, including the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. areas.
“The state has seen an increase in numbers — that’s it,” he said. “There’s no sugarcoating it, wordsmithing it or twisting it around. We are at a point — the governor talked about it yesterday, being at a fork in the road. Some of us would argue that we’ve actually already gone down a path that is moving towards seeing increased numbers.”
More jurisdictions are beginning to pull back on provisions and put more restrictions in place, he said.
“We actually are reviewing our internal policies to see if there’s anything we need to tweak or further adjust in terms of rolling back provisions to keep our residents safe,” Gayles said. “We will continue to monitor those as we move through those. We will announce those accordingly to the public.”
Gayles and health officers in Maryland’s other major jurisdictions wrote last week to Fran Phillips, the state’s deputy health secretary, urging a possible statewide rollback of loosened restrictions if the situation worsens.
Asked during a press conference on Wednesday about the possibility of re-imposing restrictions, Gov. Larry Hogan said the state is holding steady at phase 2 of its reopening. But local jurisdictions, including Montgomery County, may impose tighter restrictions if they’d like.
Montgomery County has been harder hit than most counties and has taken longer to go through stages of reopening. It moved to phase 1 on June 1, then phase 2 — where it remains — on June 19. Officials have not seen enough improvement since then to progress to phase 3.
County Executive Marc Elrich said during Thursday’s briefing that the county would be staying in its second phase of reopening, like the state is, and won’t be moving to a third phase yet.
“When numbers come down, then we’ll talk about progress,’ he said. “But obviously, no one feels comfortable going forward right now.”
He noted that the state is requiring face coverings to be worn inside and outside, unless people are in a swimming pool or are six feet apart outdoors. That matches what already was in place in Montgomery County.
Gatherings in the county are capped at 50 people, with everyone required to wear face coverings and maintain physical distance at those events, he said.
“The governor made note of some of the results they’re getting from contact tracing which shows that family gatherings and other social gatherings have been a significant source of transmission,” he said. “This is not something totally new, not something that we didn’t expect to find, but now you’re getting data from the contact tracing that confirms that.”
Three weeks ago, the question was when the county would be moving into phase 3, Gayles said.
“Our realities have changed and I know a lot of people continue to write in requesting that other things be added and additional provisions be made,” he said.
In order to move forward to phase 3 of reopening, Gayles said, the county would need to see its daily case numbers continue to drop. The county is not in a “bubble” and could be affected by other close jurisdictions, he said.
Rather than a constant decline in additional cases, the county is seeing what Gayles described as “an extended plateau”— staying about the same. The county has found it difficult to drive numbers down further.
“I would say right now, where we are, is a point where we have to look at saying, do we need to tighten things up?” he said.
Certain activities that have been tied to cases in contact tracing, such as gatherings, restaurants and bars, could have stricter provisions, he said.
Gayles said the pandemic and health principles have become political.
“There are certain [principles] that should never be political and we should follow them by looking at facts, data and evidence,” he said. “And health is one of those.
“There may be decisions we make that you may not be happy with or may impact you in a way that’s not beneficial, but we make these decisions based on the full constellation of data and evidence that we have available. We have to make decisions for all of the residents of the county, not one particular group, not one particular ZIP code, or one particular part of society.”
Dr. Earl Stoddard, executive director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said the county is continuing to distribute masks and personal protective equipment, or PPE, to nursing homes, nonprofits and other facilities. However, he urged those entities to seek to build up their own stockpiles in case of another surge of cases.
Emergency management staff members have started working with the county’s Board of Elections to plan for the 2020 general election in November.
“Our Board of Elections is concerned that we’re going to have as few as a third of the election judges that we would normally have, given the number of people who have said they’re, either for health concerns or other concerns, not willing to be election judges this year,” Stoddard said. “That’s a huge challenge for us, as is things like plexiglass and other accommodations to make it safer.”
Hogan has called for precincts to be open on Election Day for in-person voting and for an application for a mail-in ballot to be sent to every voter in the state.
Gayles said the county is open to providing guidance on how individuals or organizations can safely host events, but the gathering limit is strict.
“We’re not trying to be the boogeyman that comes in and shuts things down,” he said. “But there are practices that we have to adhere to.”
Stoddard said individuals and organizations must show how they intend to make events safe and within the county’s guidelines.
Just because an event is outside or another jurisdiction is allowed to do it, he said, does not make it safe.
Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.