Health concerns persist after county officials say reopening is needed

County officials say reopening needed, but health concerns persist

Council member says Montgomery announcement seemed ‘rushed’

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Montgomery County officials said Thursday that County Executive Marc Elrich’s announcement that some businesses can start opening Monday morning is a positive step forward. But they still have concerns about how safe it can be as the COVID-19 pandemic persists.

Elrich announced during a raucous press conference Thursday afternoon that starting Monday at 6 a.m., the county would begin its first phase of reopening.

Restaurants and bars can reopen with some outdoor seating, retail stores can open for curbside service, manufacturing businesses can operate with restrictions, and outdoor day camps and sports programs can resume, with restrictions.

Elrich’s announcement came one day before Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., planned to start lifting restrictions.

Montgomery County Council Member Craig Rice said in an interview Thursday that that the reopening announcement is welcome, but there must be a balance between following in the path of other jurisdictions and safety.

“Us being as cautious as we can from a health standpoint, in terms of making sure our residents are safe, is [something we have to] balance with the fact that other jurisdictions have decided to move forward with opening their doors,” he said. “And so that continues to spread around that same type of risk. So from that perspective, it really doesn’t make sense to keep our doors closed if other jurisdictions aren’t doing that.”

Rice said he has heard from business owners who insist the county reopen and others who are worried. Both feelings are valid, he said.

“There are a lot of scared people out there, some of whom are business owners who are not sure if they can guarantee their safety or their customer’s safety in terms of reopening,” he said.

Rice said reactions to the reopening announcement will inevitably be mixed.

“Some will say we’re not opening up fast enough. Some will say we’re opening up too quickly. The reality is that we’re somewhere in the middle, which balances safety with the need for people to support businesses,” he said.

Council Member Hans Riemer said in an interview that generally, he thinks the county is taking the right steps in reopening.

“Outdoor is clearly safer than indoor. So I strongly agree that we need to be allowing for commerce and camps and child care in an outdoor setting. People have to be able to live their lives. We can’t have another three months of total shutdown,” he said.

Riemer, a frequent critic of Elrich, said he thought Thursday’s announcement seemed “rushed.” The county’s rollout, he said, differed from the staggered reopening announcements made this month by Gov. Larry Hogan.

Hogan first said that retail businesses, some manufacturing and by-appointment barber and beauty salons were among those that could open on May 15.

On Wednesday, he expanded the list to include outdoor dining, pools, day camps and social organizations, starting at 5 p.m. on Friday.

“Decisions are being made in real time, and I think the decision to have a full phase one opening was certainly impacted by what D.C. and Northern Virginia are doing,” Riemer said.

Riemer said he doesn’t necessarily agree that Montgomery County must open on the same timeline as neighboring jurisdictions.

“I think we should if the facts support that,” he said. “Our level of transmission is a little different from other communities’. So I think it’s acceptable for us to make decisions based on our own level of disease spread. Generally speaking, if we’re all pretty similar, it makes sense for us to act together.”

The County Council is scheduled to vote on Elrich’s executive order at a meeting that starts at 1 p.m. Friday.

Council Member Andrew Friedson wrote on Facebook Thursday that he is pleased the county is reopening, but proper health and social distancing measures are still needed to ensure safety.

“Our residents and businesses deserve tremendous credit for taking extremely difficult but necessary steps to help stop the spread of this deadly virus,” he wrote. “We’ll need them to continue to take the required safety precautions such as social distancing and wearing face coverings as we gradually reopen.”

Ginanne Italiano, the president of the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview that her chamber is one of five that have been working with Elrich’s office to provide information on recommended guidelines from professional associations on how to safely reopen.

“We didn’t give those recommendations of what the guidelines are. We gave recommendations for the sources of what those guidelines are,” she said.

“We’re not saying [to] tell the restaurants they have to do this or tell the hotels they have to do this. We’re saying, you need to look at the recommendations from the American Hotel & Lodging Association.”

Italiano said she hopes to see guidance from Elrich’s office on safety precautions for reopening.

“You’re not just gonna walk into an office. There’s gonna have to be masks and sanitizing and all of the rest of that kind of stuff. But the specific requirements we don’t know until he [Elrich] releases that information,” she said.

Italiano said that overall, the reopening announcement is positive.

“We’re ready for members to get back to work. This is what we’re waiting for. We already printed signs to give to our members to say, yes, we’re open,” she said.

Mark Bucher, the owner of the restaurant Medium Rare, which has locations in Bethesda, Arlington, Va. and Washington, D.C., said in an interview that he is pleased the county is reopening.

“I think it’s good. It was better than saying we’re still closed,” he said. “And it also gives me adequate time to contact employees and check their availability and their willingness to come back to work, as opposed to trying to rush and put something together.”

Bucher said his restaurant has stayed open during the pandemic for takeout and delivery. Some employees were furloughed at first, but anyone willing to come back to work has been rehired, he said.

Currently, there are 6 to 8 employees working each night, Bucher said. The normal staff size is 10 to 16.

Bucher said some workers have chosen not to come back because they are getting more money from unemployment benefits than they would from a paycheck. He hopes to hire high school and college students to work during the summer.

Bucher said that to prepare for reopening, he has been speaking with restaurateurs in other states daily to get information on best practices. Issues that might come up include preventing overcrowding in restrooms, determining what to do if it rains and deciding how to serve meals with the least amount of person-to-person contact.

“When you get a glass of wine and you’re sitting outside on the patio, you want another glass of wine,” he said. “Do we bring you another glass of wine, or do we pour the wine from a bottle into your glass? Which one’s less contact? Which one’s more quick? Which one is more comfortable for the guest?”

Bucher said that since his Arlington and D.C. restaurants are reopening this weekend, he’ll have a better sense of how to proceed when his Bethesda restaurant opens on Monday.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

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