2021 | Coronavirus

County reaches threshold for first proposed reopening phase

Initial phase calls for 50% of population getting first COVID-19 vaccine dose

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A Montgomery County vaccinator prepares COVID-19 vaccine syringes at the county clinic on Montgomery College's Germantown campus on March 31, 2021.

File photo

Montgomery County has reached an initial benchmark for businesses and activities to begin reopening further if the County Council approves a proposed phasing plan on Tuesday.

The first phase of the proposed three-phase plan would automatically go into effect if at least 50% of the county’s population has received a first COVID-19 vaccine dose. The county reached that threshold on Monday, at 50.4%.

The plan says that once the threshold for each phase is met, it would begin automatically once Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, reports the vaccination progress to the County Council, sitting as the Board of Health.

Health officials are expected to provide a vaccine and case update to the council immediately before the public hearing and vote. If the council approves the phased plan on Tuesday, the changes will go into effect immediately.

The first two phases are based on 50% and 60% of the population getting a first vaccine dose. The third phase is based on 50% of the population being fully vaccinated.

A public hearing and vote on the proposed plan were scheduled for Tuesday morning.

The following changes would be made under phase 1:
● Gathering limits would increase to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors (currently 25 indoors and 50 outdoors)
● Businesses limited to 25% capacity would move to 50% capacity if they do not sell or permit the consumption of food or drink
● Camps could move to the gathering limits of 50 indoors and 100 outdoors (currently 25 indoors and 50 outdoors)
● Escape rooms — in which groups try to solve clues to earn their way out of an enclosed area — could allow 10 people per game (currently 6 people per private game)
● Museums and galleries could reopen touch exhibits
● Malls could reopen pedestrian concourses and return tables and chairs inside
● Sports could move to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors, with a similar number of spectators (currently 25 indoors and 50 outdoors)

County Council President Tom Hucker, at a media briefing on Monday, defended a phased plan instead of lifting all restrictions at the same time.

“The fact that we’re doing so well is a direct result of the public health guidance that we have been following and the cautious … but balanced approach that we’ve taken. Other jurisdictions haven’t taken that and those jurisdictions have higher case rates,” he said. “We’ve been able to do this in a county that’s the largest one in Maryland, where it’s the hardest to get to these kinds of numbers and one where people speak 150 languages.

“It’s astonishing that we’ve done this well compared to other jurisdictions. But we’ve done it because we’ve made these hard decisions to keep these guidelines in place.”

Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz said at the briefing there are ramifications of reopening too quickly or aggressively.

“We know this has been extraordinarily challenging on multiple fronts,” he said. “But because of both the guidelines that have been set forth and our county residents following through, we’re in the position we’re in.”

The second phase would further lift restrictions.

The third phase would lift all local restrictions and say that businesses and activities in the county adhere to any state or Maryland Department of Health requirements in place at the time.

Dr. James Bridgers, the county’s deputy health officer, said he could not provide a target for when officials expect that 50% of the county’s population would be fully vaccinated, the metric triggering the third phase.

Around 125,000 people still are preregistered for a vaccine, but have not received a first dose yet.

Bridgers said the county would like to see 100% of eligible residents age 16 and older get a vaccine, but 70% or higher is the goal to start achieving herd immunity from the coronavirus.

Hucker said the county’s pace of vaccinations — and, therefore, reopening — hinges on the number of doses the state provides to the county.

“We have the ability to get more vaccines in more arms in Montgomery County as soon as we get more vaccines from the state,” he said. “As long as that supply continues to come in, we’re going to be on pace to reopen, but we’ve seen that ebb and flow. We hope that the state will continue to increase the number of vaccines. It’s been cut back recently.”

The number of vaccine doses delivered to the county has decreased by several thousand because of shortages the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, then a pause on administering it. The use of the vaccine was halted while federal agencies investigate a potential link with 15 cases of rare blood clots.

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