2020 | Coronavirus

UPDATED: Elrich planning to propose new restrictions to combat COVID-19 within next week

Is stay-at-home order needed? Officials look to health officer

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich plans to propose more COVID-19 restrictions.

File photo

This story was updated at 12:25 p.m. Nov. 17, 2020, with additional comments.

County Executive Marc Elrich said Monday night that his administration is preparing to propose additional restrictions within the next week, which would limit social gatherings to no more than 10, as other counties have done.

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, and Montgomery County figures out its next steps, County Council members said Monday that they’re looking to Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles to determine if a stay-at-home order might be needed.

If Gayles signals that one is needed, the council will support it, they said.

When Elrich proposes new changes to an executive order on COVID-19 restrictions, they go to the County Council, which approves them.

Asked about a stay-at-home order, Elrich said in an interview that he would ideally like to see other counties follow suit, or a statewide order from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.

Gayles could not be reached for comment on Monday. When asked during Tuesday’s County Council meeting about a statewide stay-at-home order, Gayles said a shutdown of a certain time period could limit exposure and transmission.

“I think there would be significant value and benefit to that,” he said. “At this point, as the numbers continue to creep up, we’re putting ourselves in a very difficult position without taking potential further restrictions if we want to get the numbers down.”

Dr. Earl Stoddard, executive director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said during the meeting that lockdowns and closures are terrible because they hurt businesses, but they work for public health.

“Half measures” hurt businesses, but don’t have as quick of a benefit as lockdowns, he said.

“What balance of hurting the business community versus people are you comfortable with? … Doing nothing and letting people get hurt is obviously not a great solution,” he said. 

Cases have been on the rise steadily in recent weeks, with 366 new cases reported in the county on Tuesday morning. The county has added at least 200 cases on eight days this month, and 100 or more every day since Oct. 21.

Council Member Will Jawando was the sole council member who said in interviews on Monday that a stay-at-home order is needed now, but he supports it on a statewide level.

Jawando called on Hogan to issue a statewide stay-at-home order in a post on Twitter Monday morning.

“If we were to do it in Montgomery County, many people are traveling in and out and it’s not as effective. … The case rate is moving up too high and we’re heading into a critical time in the holidays,” Jawando told Bethesda Beat Monday evening. “We need to send a strong message that we need to buckle down here for the next four to six weeks.”

Jawando said he plans to speak with Elrich and the rest of the council about a potential stay-at-home order on the county level.

“It’s not as beneficial to do it just as a county, especially as a stay-at-home order, but if we have to do it, we should discuss it,” he said.

Elrich said county health officers in the state have been meeting at least every other week to discuss their concerns about rising case numbers with state health officials.

“The health officers would go farther than the governor [Hogan] has gone, if it was up to them,” Elrich said.

Hogan is scheduled to hold a 2 p.m. brief conference on Tuesday to talk about COVID-19 conditions and restrictions in Maryland.

Elrich noted that there have been a number of times during the pandemic when Montgomery implements COVID-19 restrictions before other places in the state — something he hopes to avoid this time.

“Montgomery County has sometimes been out there on its own when we went ahead of other people. We went ahead because we felt we had to do that,” he said.

A regional agreement is important, Elrich said, because without one, residents in neighboring counties who travel to Montgomery for work or other reasons could accelerate the spread of the virus.

“[An order] is only gonna work if the region moves together,” he said.

But Elrich said that if Gayles recommends a stay-at-home order, the county will move ahead with one, even if other jurisdictions don’t.

Council Member Hans Riemer posted on Facebook over the weekend that he thinks Maryland needs a statewide stay-at-home order, and it should be done in conjunction with similar actions in Virginia and D.C.

In an interview Monday, Riemer said a regional approach between the three jurisdictions is the most effective approach, because it would hopefully slow the spread of the virus more quickly than a local order.

“We need to do something to break this fever in advance of the distribution of the vaccine, which is going to be beginning, but it’s gonna take months before it’s widely available enough to drive those numbers down,” he said.

Riemer said he wouldn’t be opposed to a county order, but it wouldn’t have the same impact as a regional one.

“If you shut down, but people in the rest of the region don’t shut down … well, how do you open back up?” he said.

Riemer said the goal of his Facebook post was to “start the conversation” about a regional approach to a stay-at-home order. He said the fact that cases have consistently been in the 200s has been cause for alarm, and 300 cases a day consistently would be “extremely high.”

“I think we have to do something to break the transmission, to slow the spread,” he said. “Right now, it’s getting to an extreme level of transmission. So if we are in a phase of 300-plus cases a day, I don’t know how you avoid taking very, very dramatic steps.”

Council Member Gabe Albornoz told Bethesda Beat Monday afternoon that the county is heading in the direction of a stay-at-home order, but he doesn’t know if it’s there yet.

“We need to do this responsibly and gradually. I think the provisions that we have in place — as long as people are adhering to them — should be sufficient,” he said.

If cases and hospitalizations continue to increase and residents don’t follow guidelines, the county might need to take “dramatic measures,” Albornoz said.

Gayles has told the council that if more action is needed, more restrictions will be proposed, Council Member Nancy Navarro said, but he has not mentioned a potential stay-at-home order yet.

“I don’t think that is out of the realm of possibilities if things continue to go in that direction [of high cases and hospitalizations],” she said.

Once President-elect Joe Biden moves into the White House, Navarro said, she hopes to see more federal guidance to provide a more uniform and nationwide response to the pandemic.

Council Member Craig Rice said Monday evening that a stay-at-home order is the county’s last resort if numbers don’t drop. The county needs to coordinate with surrounding jurisdictions on restrictions, he said.

“There really is so much flow between our varied communities that we do need to be consistent, especially because we have residents who work in one area and live in another area,” he said.

More statewide guidance needs to come, Rice said, especially if a stay-at-home order is needed.

“One of the things that I think has been a challenge is pushing leaders across the state to follow a lead and have [Hogan] institute something statewide when it comes to turning the tide to what we’re seeing. It’s very clear that we’re seeing continued spikes in the state and just leaving it to jurisdictions to make these decisions is not the type of leadership that we need right now.”

Council Vice President Tom Hucker said Monday that he would like to see more enforcement with businesses that are not complying with county regulations. Increased citations and fewer warnings are needed, he said.

“I have asked for stronger and more targeted enforcement,” he said. “We need more enforcement personnel. We should be signing some of our police to be doing some of this. I go to grocery stores all the time that are over capacity and not counting their customers and not wiping down carts. We really need everybody to be doing their part.”

The county is past the point of whether there should be a lot of warnings, he said, and more inspectors need to be hired.

“This isn’t March and April anymore. They know what they need to be doing and they need to be policing themselves,” Hucker said.

President Sidney Katz told Bethesda Beat Monday afternoon that public health experts should be trusted with what needs to be done to keep the community safe.

“We have always looked to Dr. Gayles and Dr. Stoddard to be our guiding light and I feel comfortable that they will suggest that [any restriction] be done the way it should be done,” he said. “I certainly feel comfortable waiting for their guidance.”

Council Member Andrew Friedson said county officials’ top priority is to keep residents safe.

“There are no easy answers. There are no good choices here,” he said. “It’s a choice among impossible options. … We should make the best, most educated decision we can on the basis of public health data and the input of public health experts. We also have to understand the impact of our actions and the severe consequences that they can have.”

Tricia Swanson, the vice president of government relations for the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat on Tuesday that the chamber has no official position on a possible stay-at-home order.

“However, MCCC does understand the difficult balance county officials must make in following the science while also not wanting to further hurt our businesses, many of whom are still struggling from the last eight months,” she wrote.

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

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