2021 | Government

Public, businesses adjust as county nears final reopening phase

The county is set to fully reopen Friday at 6 a.m.

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Almost any time Montgomery County Council President Tom Hucker goes to Goldberg’s New York Bagels in Silver Spring, there’s a line winding out the door.

That was true Sunday morning, he said on Monday. The difference, however, was that customers were confused about whether entering the store required a face covering.

“There was a big debate among all of the mask-wearing patrons waiting in the line, waiting to get in, about what the rules were inside and outside Goldberg’s,” Hucker said during a weekly news conference with reporters. “There was no sign on their door, but on two of the adjacent doors in the same little strip mall, they had signs saying … nobody comes in without a mask, vaccinated or unvaccinated.”

This scene reflects uncertainty in Montgomery County, as officials prepare for the county to enter the third and final phase of reopening, which allows businesses to open at full capacity. Fully vaccinated residents are currently no longer required to wear masks indoors in most settings. 

But businesses, as private entities, still decide whether to require masks indoors and enforce recommended social distancing and capacity limits.

Hucker and County Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz said some residents have been confused about whether or not to wear masks in certain settings.

Albornoz said it’s OK that some residents feel they should still wear masks indoors and outdoors when social distancing is not possible.

He said that compared to previous health orders, he hasn’t heard much from residents about whether the most recent one was too cautious or too strict. That may indicate there isn’t as much backlash about it, he said.

“Every public health order we’ve issued since the beginning of the pandemic has generally led to a high degree of correspondence, on both sides,” Albornoz said about public feedback “But in this case, there wasn’t as much. And to me, that means people are adjusting personally, and are going to do what they feel is best for them, but feel more comfortable and confident with the decisions we’ve made thus far.”

Hucker agreed. He said that as long as health metrics trend in the right direction, county officials and others will move away from a “control and command environment” toward one in which the private sector determines what is adequate.

“Now we’re moving into a whole different period where there’s guidelines, there’s a lot more opportunity for individual freedom and individual decision-making, and individual business owners will make decisions on their own about what is allowed and not allowed on their private property,” Hucker said. 

The date for the third and final phase was based on when 50% of the county’s population received one dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine or two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, a threshold that was reached May 14. People are fully vaccinated two weeks after they receive all their doses, per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so the third-phase date is Friday of this week.

Most businesses will be allowed to resume normal operations, but some restrictions remain in space, especially at larger venues. For example, there will be gathering limits at high school graduations, depending on class size and how big a school’s stadium capacity is.

The county entered the second phase on May 17, when 60% of the county’s population had received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Indoor event capacity was increased to 250 people, outdoor gathering limits were lifted and religious establishments and most businesses increased from 50% to 75% capacity, among other changes.

County officials entered the first phase on April 27, when 50% of the population had received at least a single dose of a vaccine.

Indoor event capacity increased from 25 to 50 people, and outdoor capacity from 50 to 100 people outdoors. Business capacity increased from 25% to 50%, and malls could reopen pedestrian concourses, along with other changes. 

In the third phase, mask wearing will still be required indoors at schools, in health care settings and while riding public transportation. And state Department of Health officials are still recommending measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, like social distancing and requiring six feet between tables in restaurants, for instance. 

James Bridgers, a deputy health officer with the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said county officials will take more of an educational approach when monitoring mask-wearing or with other restrictions businesses might set.

“The county would certainly provide education and an update on the enforcement piece … [but] many of our enforcement strategies is moreso empowering the business owner to be informed what those safeguards are, what those practices are,” Bridgers said during Monday’s news briefing. 

County officials will still closely track vaccination rates and overall coronavirus health metrics in the coming weeks. Albornoz said the county’s Board of Health can enact new health regulations within a day or two, as long as county, state and federal public health officials have time to assess current data.

But if data continue in a positive direction, Hucker said, the pandemic will hopefully have led to some positive changes: more open street events, and encouraging businesses to offer telecommuting more routinely to get cars off roads.

“I think we’re all moving into a whole new world,” Hucker said. “And as miserable as this past year has been, I’m hopeful we’ll see some good things come out of it.”

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com