2020 | Coronavirus

County trying to coordinate tighter COVID-19 restrictions with other jurisdictions

Stricter capacity limits will be up for County Council vote on Tuesday

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Logo from Montgomery County

Next week, Montgomery County might reinstate certain COVID-19 restrictions, such as stricter capacity limits in restaurants and other businesses.

But it hopes not to act alone.

Over the last few weeks, county officials spoke with representatives from surrounding jurisdictions in the region about jointly putting some restrictions back in, a Montgomery County official said Thursday.

Dr. Earl Stoddard, the executive director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, told the County Council about the effort.

“County Executive [Marc] Elrich has been attempting to recruit other partners in this. There’s just a lot of trepidation,” Stoddard said. “I think it’s understandable.

“We got to the point where we’ve been holding back on this recommendation [for changes] for weeks, trying to recruit other people to jump on that proverbial ledger or move forward with this together. We have not been able to get partnerships on this.”

“At this point, we feel like us taking this leap of confidence in our public health leadership and Dr. [Travis] Gayles is the right thing for our residents,” Stoddard said, referring to the county’s health officer. “We cannot continue to sit here while we try and foster support from other jurisdictions while our residents are becoming affected.”

Under Elrich’s proposed changes, capacity at restaurants and other businesses would be cut in half — from 50% to 25%.

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.

Separately, outside of the executive order, the county is no longer going to allow late-night alcohol service, as of Friday. The deadline for service will be 10 p.m. instead of midnight.

Spokespeople for Prince George’s and Howard counties in Maryland; and Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to or provide comments on the possibility of coordinating restrictions with Montgomery County.

In an email to Bethesda Beat on Thursday afternoon, Vivian Laxton, a spokeswoman for Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner, referred to Gardner’s comments during a public information briefing earlier in the day.

“Because our health metrics are increasing across the region and we’re all moving in the wrong direction, in the coming days, we’re going to be considering additional actions,” Gardner said at the briefing. “I’ve talked with some of our surrounding jurisdictions. This includes limiting the gathering size of social gatherings, possibly closing some venues earlier, like bars and even restaurants. … You’re going to start hearing about this.”

The changes to Montgomery County’s executive order are expected to come before the County Council for a vote on Tuesday. It was originally scheduled for a vote on Thursday of this week, but council members delayed it to give residents more notice and chance to comment.

The order will be amended with a new effective date, which will be Tuesday at 5 p.m. It will include some clarifications in the language as well.

Because amendments are being made to the order, the county is required to schedule another public hearing on Tuesday for the order.

Stoddard acknowledged that the county could give businesses more notice of potential changes.

“It’s going to be very difficult for us to balance the public health immediacy once an action has been deemed necessary to pausing that action for a myriad of public review while the activity that we deemed to be unsafe continues,” he said. “I think that’s the tricky balance.”

Any delay in taking action could lead to more cases, he said.

“Once we make a decision it’s in the public health interest to move backwards, days will matter. Obviously what goes on this weekend will contribute to cases for the next two weeks. … Whatever decisions you all make next week, it will take two weeks to see any benefit from that at all,” he told the council.

During a public hearing on Thursday, seven people spoke against the potential changes and eight spoke in favor.

Gayles told the council that officials sent out an “alarm” to jurisdictions in the region when Montgomery County experienced a rise in cases starting two weeks ago.

“We’ve been really working hard to get a regional response, but then also working to get a state-level response as well. … Right now, we don’t have state guidelines saying — we have a reopening plan, but we don’t have any guidelines to talk about, what are the markers that we hit that we need to go back?” he said. “In the absence of that, the local jurisdictions have been trying to come up with different strategies to address our immediate needs, but also working across those boundaries to do so.”

There have been many phone calls, emails and team meetings among local jurisdictions to try to get everyone to move together on restrictions, he said.

Stoddard hinted that other jurisdictions might not be far behind in following the county’s footsteps.

“I don’t want to announce something ahead of someone else. But I do not expect that by next week we’ll be alone on this issue,” he said.

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