This story was updated at 11:02 p.m. on April 27, 2021, to include comments from council members and community members.
Montgomery County moved into the first phase of its new three-phase reopening plan on Tuesday after reaching an initial benchmark.
The benchmark was related to the percentage of the population that is vaccinated with a first COVID-19 vaccine dose.
The County Council unanimously approved the phased reopening plan on Tuesday. The first phase automatically goes into effect because 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 will begin automatically once Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, reports the vaccination progress through a memo to the County Council, sitting as the Board of Health.
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.
The following changes are now in effect under phase 1:
● Gathering limits increase to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors (previously 25 indoors and 50 outdoors)
● Businesses limited to 25% capacity move to 50% capacity and can sell concessions with social distancing
● Camps can move to the gathering limits of 50 indoors and 100 outdoors (previously 25 indoors and 50 outdoors)
● Escape rooms — in which groups try to solve clues to earn their way out of an enclosed area — can allow 10 people per game (previously 6 people per private game)
● Museums and galleries can reopen touch exhibits
● Malls can reopen pedestrian concourses and return tables and chairs inside
● Sports can move to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors, with a similar number of spectators (previously 25 indoors and 50 outdoors)
Gayles said the best-case outlook for reaching the second phase’s threshold will be around two to three weeks. The jump from the second phase to the third phase will probably take an additional four to six weeks, he said.
“I think getting from 50% to 60% [of the population with a first dose] will happen quicker … than it takes for us to get to 50% in terms of the population fully vaccinated,” he said.
Council Member Hans Riemer said at the meeting that the phased plan will allow the county and residents to plan for a different summer.
“This is a paradigm shift for us. I think it’s innovative. I think it’s really an example for how to craft this policy,” he said.
Council Member Evan Glass said the onus is on eligible residents to get vaccinated to let the county continue reopening.
“If individuals and businesses want to open up, encourage your neighbors, your family members, and also your patrons to get vaccinated,” he said. “It’s just that simple.”
Resident Jonathan Harris said during a public hearing on the plan that once people get adequate opportunities to get the vaccine, the county should move forward with reopening, regardless of the percentage of the population vaccinated.
The county should “not cause more suffering of the people who want to avoid COVID and get vaccinated. The people who decide … they don’t want to take the vaccine, they shouldn’t hold the rest of us back.”
Mary Linger of VisArts, a Rockville nonprofit, said during the public hearing that the events industry and venues urgently need the loosened capacity limits.
“The guidelines for [venues] were needed months ago,” she said. “I recognize no one can predict the future and that COVID-19 remains an evolving crisis worldwide. But the lack of criteria and communication for metrics for determining guest count and a safe reopening has devastated our industry and we are actively losing business to neighboring counties, Virginia and the District of Columbia.”
More wedding business has been lost during the current and upcoming wedding season than last year because of the uncertainty with county event guidelines, she said.
Amy Rohrer, president and CEO of the Maryland Hotel Lodging Association, said hotels in the state have suffered from restrictions on gatherings and events, resulting in historically low occupancy and revenue losses.
The first phase is a “step in the right direction” and the second phase, which will further expand capacity, will let the hotel industry begin its recovery in the county, she said.
Prior to the pandemic, hotels contributed $21 million in local hotel tax, according to Rohrer. She said full recovery for the industry is expected in 2024.
Steve Castro, owner of Davidus Cigars, urged the council to allow tobacco shops to reopen indoor smoking lounges.
Cigar lounges have better ventilation systems than bars and restaurants, he said, and his stores have strict cleaning practices.
“We do not serve food or alcoholic beverages. We are not a bar,” he said. “At 50% capacity, we may have four to 10 customers smoking in the store at one time.”
John Anderson, co-owner of W. Curtis Draper, said one of his tobacco shops has an outdoor patio, yet he cannot open his outdoor area to customers while restaurants can.
“The arbitrary mandates to keep cigar lounges closed is not backed by good science and if it were, more of the country would mandate the same,” he said.
Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at email@example.com.