This story was updated at 10:25 p.m. on March 9, 2021, to include additional comments from Dr. Travis Gayles. It was also updated at 9:55 a.m. and 10:26 a.m. on March 10, 2021, to include additional background and a comment from Gov. Larry Hogan’s spokesman, and County Council Member Gabe Albornoz.
Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said Tuesday that the county might lift some restrictions on gathering limits and child care capacity if COVID-19 cases continue to decrease.
Later in the day, Gov. Larry Hogan said he is loosening statewide restrictions on restaurants and others businesses, starting Friday. Even though his new executive order has wording that seems to prevent local jurisdictions from imposing stronger restrictions, Hogan and his office said the jurisdictions still have that right.
Speaking during a virtual event (passcode:wU#1m&d6) hosted by Bethesda Beat, Gayles said county officials are guided by the declining spread of the virus and the increasing number of vaccinations.
When asked about a draft executive order that is in the works, Gayles declined to share specifics, but he said county officials have been working with “child care system colleagues” to return capacity to the same levels as the state.
He noted that the county hadn’t moved at the same pace as the state on child care limits before because there were more COVID-19 cases in Montgomery County than in other parts of the state.
Gayles said the county is also considering easing restrictions on the number of people who can gather in one place.
“We also would be looking at how we could make some incremental changes in terms of gathering sizes. Right now, we’re at 10 (indoors) and 25 (outdoors). And so those are the types of things that we would be paying attention to,” he said.
Bethesda Beat requested a copy of the draft executive order on Tuesday, but the county attorney’s office declined to provide it.
Silvia Kinch, chief of the Division of Labor Relations and Public Safety for the Office of the County Attorney, wrote in an email Tuesday afternoon that the county won’t release the draft order because County Executive Marc Elrich has not approved or signed it yet.
“The basis for the denial would be executive privilege and denial is in the public interest because it would avoid creating potential confusion,” she wrote.
The County Council is expected to vote on the executive order on March 16.
Tuesday’s virtual event with Gayles was moderated by Steve Hull, the editor and publisher of Bethesda Magazine and Bethesda Beat, and Briana Adhikusuma, a reporter for Bethesda Beat. About 500 people registered to listen and ask questions.
Gayles noted during the event that when the county began easing restrictions during the pandemic in the summer of 2020, cases were at a lower level than they are currently.
He said he is “cautiously optimistic” due to the increasing numbers of vaccinations in the county, but the presence of the United Kingdom, Brazil and South African variants of the virus in Maryland are cause for concern.
“We know that they are highly contagious and spread easier and quicker,” he said. “It’s important to continue to monitor those trends because we don’t want to have a situation where we open up prematurely, where we increase capacity limits and we increase activity that could set us up for a next wave or surge of cases while we move forward and try to get more people vaccinated.”
Tuesday afternoon, Hogan announced that, beginning Friday, capacity limits for indoor and outdoor dining can be lifted across the state. Hogan also removed restrictions for retail stores, gyms, houses of worship and recreation facilities.
The order states that jurisdictions can determine whether to issue orders that are more restrictive than the governor’s order regarding businesses and other facilities, except schools, to close or modify operations. It also allows local authorities to require individuals to remain indoors or refrain from congregating.
But below that allowance, the order states that the provision on local jurisdictions’ powers “shall cease to be effective at 5:00 p.m. on March 12, 2021, at which time all Local Orders issued [under the provision] above shall become null and void.”
However, Hogan said at the press conference that local jurisdictions can choose to keep more stringent restrictions, as they have done for months. He urged them to follow the statewide restrictions, though.
Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, wrote in an email Wednesday morning that the governor’s order does not constitute a substantial reduction in local authority.
“If anything, it creates more clarity and transparency what local emergency authorities are used to underpin local actions,” he wrote. “Those authorities are unaffected by the order.”
Mary Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Department of Health, wrote in a text message Tuesday afternoon that officials were reviewing Hogan’s order and had not made any decisions about whether to follow the new guidelines.
On Wednesday morning, County Council Member Gabe Albornoz said county officials were meeting to discuss the governor’s order and how it might affect the county’s local order.
Large outdoor and indoor venues — including wedding and concert venues, convention centers, racing facilities and sporting venues — will be allowed to have up to 50% capacity in Maryland, according to Hogan.
Concern remains over variants
Gayles said during Tuesday’s event that he knows of cases of the U.K. and South African variants that have been documented in Montgomery County. He declined to elaborate, citing “privacy considerations.”
Gayles said he remains concerned about the variants due to the fact that they spread easily, and worries because their transmission has led to lockdowns in countries overseas.
“As best as we can tell, we’re still trying to figure out what are the levels of community transmission for those particular variants, which is the reason we have some pause and some caution with opening up quickly,” he said.
Gayles added that he doesn’t want the “perfect petri dish” to be created in the county for the variants, which would cause the number of cases to spike again.
Gayles said to get a sense of how prevalent the variants are, samples have to be subjected to genomic sequencing. That process, he said, is being done at the state level for 20% of all samples through the first two weeks of March.
Johnson & Johnson vaccine supply nearly exhausted
Montgomery County received its share of the state’s allotment of the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine last week, Gayles said on Tuesday. About 80% of the supply has been used up, and he expected it would be entirely exhausted by the end of Wednesday.
The Johnson and Johnson vaccine is administered as a single dose, unlike the two-shot Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Gayles said a second allotment has been promised at the end of the month.
“It will increase opportunities to add more clinics and add more contact points that people have access to for people to get vaccinated,” he said.
Gayles added that the county is emphasizing that people take advantage of the first vaccine that is available to them, or they might have to wait longer.
County continues to mull potential mass vaccination site
Gayles said on Tuesday that county officials have been meeting with state officials to “continue those conversations” about potential mass vaccination sites.
The Maryland National Guard is preparing to visit the Germantown campus of Montgomery College, which is one proposed site.
Gayles said Montgomery College President DeRionne Pollard has been supportive of the county’s efforts when it comes to reviewing it as a “viable option.”
Gayles said the Montgomery College site has a number of logistical advantages, such as its size, ease of access to Interstate 270 and large parking lots.
“It’s a host of all those factors that go into determining it,” he said.
Gayles added that when Montgomery County does add a mass vaccination site, he hopes people from other jurisdictions, such as Frederick and Carroll counties, will use it. He said many people getting vaccinated at the Six Flags America site in Prince George’s County have been from Montgomery and Howard counties.
Gayles urges patience in spite of good news from federal government
When asked about President Joe Biden’s recent announcement that enough vaccine will be available for the entire adult population of the country by the end of May, Gayles said the announcement is encouraging.
But he said the optimism will only be fully realized when the doses show up in the county.
“It’s great to hear that, and it’s great to hear that production is increasing, but the next level is we have to see that being translated into more doses being physically distributed to the state and to other places,” he said.
Realistically, it might take another month beyond Biden’s projection before the county has a full supply of vaccines for all adults.
“We’re looking at early summer when that might be a reality,” he said.
Gayles added that those who have been vaccinated should limit their interaction with others to small groups to avoid the risk of exposure. The key, he said, is that the vaccinated population doesn’t develop a “false sense of security.”
“Don’t let your guard down, but at the same time, it is optimistic to have a sense of ‘this is where you can go the more people you get vaccinated,’” he said.
Staff reporters Briana Adhikusuma and Caitlynn Peetz contributed to this story
Dan Schere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org