With coronavirus cases increasing, county might suspend alcohol program

COVID-19 case increase could cause county to suspend late-night alcohol service

Executive order required expanded hours to end if certain problems came up

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Bar patrons might not be able to grab a late-night martini or Cosmopolitan if COVID-19 cases continue increasing in Montgomery County.

A recent surge in cases could cause the county to pull back on its Late-Night Alcohol Sales Program, which lets certain restaurants and bars serve alcohol between 10 p.m. and midnight.

The county already has surpassed at least one of the four benchmarks that would trigger shutting the program down and is close to hitting a second one.

However, two spokespeople for the county indicated on Friday that officials have not committed to ending the program and will take time to evaluate what to do next.

The program, which began on Oct. 1, allows restaurants to apply for a permit to serve alcohol for those two hours, with certain conditions.

The county previously rolled back alcohol service on Aug. 5, forcing it to stop at 10 p.m.

Officials said they put the restriction in place because at the time, compliance with COVID-19 regulations was more of a problem during the late-night hours.

But after public pressure and conditions improved, the county reinstated those hours for service.

Dr. Earl Stoddard, executive director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said Thursday during a media briefing that more than 200 businesses applied for the permit.

Under the change to the county’s executive order, several conditions were put in place. If these conditions were met, the program allowing extra hours of alcohol service had to end. The benchmarks were:
● The three-day positivity average in the county exceeds 3.25%
● The three-day average of confirmed COVID-19 cases exceeds 100
● An increased association of indoor and outdoor dining with COVID-19 positive contacts of greater than 3% combined
● More than 10% of inspected participants result in findings that warrant citation, closure or revocation of a permit

As of Friday morning, the county had a three-day average of 119 new confirmed cases — greater than the benchmark of 100.

Since the program began on Oct. 1, the county has exceeded a three-day average of 100 new confirmed cases on seven days, which includes four straight days last week. The county’s daily increase was higher than 100 for five out of six days before Monday, when it was 71.

The county’s test positivity rate was at 3.2% as of Friday morning, close to the county’s suspension standard for the program — exceeding 3.25%.

Between Oct. 1 and 11, the county had not exceeded 3.25%.

Asked whether the county would suspend the program, Mary Anderson, a spokeswoman for the county’s health department, said Friday that more information would probably be released on Monday.

“We have not made any decision at this time,” she said.

When the County Council approved the program on Oct. 1, Council Member Hans Riemer was the only member to vote against it, citing concerns that it would lead to more positive cases.

In an interview on Friday, Riemer said the executive order was clear about when the program should be suspended.

“We’re already above that [threshold for new cases]. We’ve been above that,” he said. “So I think by the plain language of the order, it should be suspended.

“I think that they might be talking about trying to change it. I think it is concerning that they put it forward and they said there’s all kinds of safeguards in here and then we almost immediately exceeded the limits that they put in there and they haven’t done anything.”

Riemer said he heard that the administration is considering shifting the standard to a seven-day average instead of a three-day average for new cases.

Barry Hudson, a spokesman for the county, told Bethesda Beat Friday afternoon that he did not know if the county is considering suspend the program or changing the benchmarks.

“What’s hard to determine is if [the uptick in cases] is an anomaly,” he said. “Is it an anomaly or is this going to be sustained? .. That’s why next week, we’ll have a stronger perspective on it than right now.”

“To be generous,” Riemer said, “I think they’re also trying to understand if the rise of cases is a result of more testing or not. But I think they’re also seeing it’s probably not. … Long story short, I think they need to go ahead and follow through on the policy because we’re already exceeding the limits that were set.”

Riemer said he can understand using a seven-day average, since if a three-day average fluctuated, it would mean shutting down and reopening the program within days.

“That kind of zig-zagging and back-and-forth would be terrible because it would make enforcement impossible,” he said. “Businesses would give up and become likely to just violate the ordinance because it would be unworkable.

It’s unrealistic to expect customers to know any given day what the three-day case count is. It’s unmanageable. I think it’s borne itself out immediately already.”

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

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