2020 | Coronavirus

UPDATED: Montgomery County not ready to move to phase 3 of reopening, officials say

Latest guidance expected by Friday

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Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich speaks during a recent event.

File photo

This story was updated at 5:55 p.m. on Sept. 2, 2020, to include information about a letter County Executive Marc Elrich sent to state leaders.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said Wednesday that the county will not fall in line with the state in moving to the next stage of easing COVID-19-related restrictions.

Citing improving data and a need to “reopen the economy,” Gov. Larry Hogan on Tuesday announced Maryland would move into the third stage of reopening, allowing all businesses to reopen in some capacity. But, he said, local jurisdictions can move at a slower pace, an allowance Montgomery County has routinely taken advantage of throughout the pandemic.

During a call with reporters on Wednesday, Elrich said Montgomery County will remain in phase 2 of reopening and “we will continue to likely modify” what activities are allowed.

He said he is a “bit disappointed in the approach Maryland is taking in going directly to phase 3.” Elrich added that hearing Hogan’s announcement on Tuesday afternoon, as it was made public, “has again taken us by surprise.”

In an email to Bethesda Beat on Wednesday afternoon, Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, wrote, “Count me surprised by the Montgomery County Executive’s surprise regarding the Stage Three announcement this week.”

Ricci wrote that the state was inspired to move to Phase 3, in part, by a “heartfelt letter” Elrich wrote to the state, urging officials to allow live entertainment.

On Tuesday, Hogan said movie theaters and live entertainment venues can reopen at 50% capacity, or up to 100 people at indoor venues or 250 people at outdoor venues, with health and safety guidelines.

Retail shops, churches and other houses of worship can increase their capacity from 50% to 75%.

Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said he expects the county will announce updated local guidelines “before Friday.”

Neither Elrich nor Gayles would elaborate on what new activities might be allowed or what restrictions might be eased. Both said county officials are still reviewing Hogan’s new guidance.

Elrich declined to provide a timeline for when the county could move into phase 3.

“That’s not the way you make health-based decisions,” Elrich said. “You make decisions when you get to the point where you think it’s safe to do so.”

In his email to Bethesda Beat on Wednesday, Ricci included a copy of a letter Elrich wrote to state leaders on Aug. 13, in which he urged the governor to allow live entertainment performances with audiences of up to 50 people.

In his letter, Elrich wrote that Montgomery County is “home to a vibrant arts community” and that “based on current public health data and best practices, we have not seen a clear reason to prohibit live performances rather than establish guidance for safe performances.”

“We certainly hope he hasn’t changed his mind, and will move forward on these changes without delay,” Ricci wrote.

During the call with reporters, Elrich acknowledged that he wrote the letter to the governor.

Elrich said local leaders didn’t think it made sense that the governor would allow large gatherings of people, but not allow live entertainment.

“I asked them when he first did it, ‘What sense did it make to allow 250 people to gather together, but when a band shows up, say, “You all have to go home”?’ ” Elrich said. “That didn’t make sense.

Elrich said the county “will definitely modify our rules on entertainment to accommodate something we asked for.”

School reopenings

Elrich also blasted federal officials’ approach to school reopenings.

On Tuesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced that beginning Sept. 15, it will no longer reimburse school districts that purchase cloth masks for students.

Elrich said that decision, paired with a push from President Donald Trump to reduce testing of asymptomatic people, is “beyond negligent” and is “an endangerment to communities.”

Elrich said the actions compound the risk of infections in schools that will likely spread to others.

“They’re going to undermine the ability for kids to protect themselves in schools,” he said. “… This goes beyond neglect. It goes beyond regular carelessness. This is a set of actions that is an endangerment to communities.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com