This story was updated at 11:34 a.m. on May 13, 2021, to include comments from County Executive Marc Elrich and a joint statement with the County Council.
As Maryland prepares to lift all indoor and outdoor business restrictions for venues and dining on Saturday, Montgomery County is keeping its current restrictions in place through its phased reopening plan.
Gov. Larry Hogan announced on Wednesday afternoon that starting Saturday, all restrictions would be lifted for restaurants and bars, as well as outdoor and indoor venues for entertainment, art, sports and conventions. The cruise terminal in Baltimore will also reopen on Saturday.
However, Montgomery County will not be following in the state’s footsteps right away, County Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz said in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon.
Jurisdictions can make their own decisions for stricter regulations and Montgomery County has consistently kept tighter restrictions in place than the state.
The county’s reopening plan, which includes three phases, is expected to reach the last phase around the first week of June, according to county officials. In that phase, local restrictions will no longer apply and the county will adhere to state mandates.
But that timeline depends on county residents getting a coronavirus vaccine.
The only restriction that Hogan kept on Wednesday is the indoor mask mandate. But that, too, will be lifted when 70% of the state’s adults receive at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, he said.
“We truly are closer than ever to getting back to a sense of normalcy,” Hogan said. “But once again, the fastest way to get rid of our damn masks, and put this pandemic behind us once and for all, is for every single eligible Marylander to get vaccinated as quickly as possible.”
Montgomery County is currently in the first phase of its latest reopening plan. It will reach the second phase — prompting looser restrictions on businesses and gatherings — when at least 60% of the county’s population has received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
The third phase will begin when at least 50% of the county’s population is fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving a second dose of a vaccine or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Albornoz said the county received no notification that the governor was going to make the announcement.
“I think we have a solid plan in place that’s tied to vaccination rates here in our community,” he said, “and I think that’s a wise course of action because we are not at a herd immunity point yet. … We have to make decisions that are based on what’s best for our residents and our community with what’s going on on the ground. We don’t feel like we’re there yet. We have a path forward and know when we’re going to reopen.”
Albornoz said the county is not “wildly off” from the state as far as being able to reopen. But he is concerned about what the earlier reopening in other parts of the state could mean for the county’s cases.
“It’s been pretty consistent that there’s been … varying degrees of a spike after each of the governor’s executive orders,” he said. “Let’s hope that doesn’t happen this time around.”
County Executive Marc Elrich said in a phone interview Thursday morning that he wasn’t sure why the governor decided to lift the restrictions when there are jurisdictions struggling to bring up their pace of vaccinations.
“To me, it’s premature to do it statewide,” he said. “[Hogan’s] using the [vaccination] average, which is drawn up by some counties like ours, with a higher level of vaccinations. … I think he rushes things too much. I don’t understand the race to beat [President Joe] Biden.”
Elrich said he hopes people pay attention to vaccination rates in other counties before visiting them.
“If you see things start to spike in Ocean City and Western Maryland, and you’re not vaccinated, you should think twice about going,” he said.
Jurisdictions should reopen based on plans tied to vaccinations, similar to Montgomery’s, Elrich said.
“This is normalcy too soon. It’s an unvaccinated normalcy,” he said.
Hogan said he hopes to have everything back to normal in Maryland by Memorial Day, at the end of this month.
Vaccinations are expected to increase across Maryland if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides final approval for the Pfizer vaccine to be administered to children between ages 12 and 15.
Vaccinations for that younger age group are expected to open Thursday at clinics offering the Pfizer vaccine.
Hogan also announced that the Maryland Department of Labor will work with the federal administration to begin the process of reinstating work search requirements for unemployment benefits to accelerate the state’s economic recovery.
“There are some people who have made the decision to stay home and to collect unemployment, rather than return to work,” he said. “We hear that every day from hundreds of people.
“We think the step we’re taking is probably the right one. There are some people who really have been trying to find work and really do need those benefits.”
Elrich and the County Council issued a joint statement on Thursday morning regarding Hogan’s reopening announcement:
“Montgomery County leaders continue to follow the guidance of our public health team and take all the actions necessary to ensure that our residents stay as healthy as possible. Our actions have lowered the COVID-19 positivity rate in our community to 1.57 percent and our case rate to less than four per 100,000 residents. These rates are the fourth lowest in the nation for jurisdictions larger than 700,000 residents.
“The County’s April 27 Board of Health regulation remains in effect and provides a phased approach to reopening based on the percentage of the population vaccinated. Once 50 percent of County residents are fully vaccinated, we will move to full reopening in line with the new state order. Community members are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving a second vaccination of Pfizer or Moderna or one dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.
“We are grateful for our more than 595,000 residents who have already received their first vaccinations and the more than 462,200 who are fully vaccinated. Thanks to these efforts, Montgomery County is on track to have 50 percent of the population with vaccinations complete before May 15. This means that by May 29, Montgomery County should resume normal operations across all indoor and outdoor businesses, restaurants, theatres, arts and entertainment venues and sports facilities.
“We currently follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on face covering requirements and are consistently working with our public health experts to determine what changes may be appropriate as vaccinations continue to increase.
“As we have done throughout the pandemic, we will continue to prioritize the guidance from our professional public health team and vaccinate our residents as quickly as possible and emerge as a stronger, healthier and more sustainable community.”
Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.