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County takes slower approach as state moves into Phase 3 of recovery

by Judith Hruz

Editor

Gov. Larry Hogan moved the state into Phase 3 of recovery on Sept. 4, which allows all businesses to open, including performance venues and movie theaters, with restrictions, but County Executive Marc Elrich took a slower approach to moving forward, saying a more cautious approach has allowed Montgomery to better protect its residents from the coronavirus pandemic in recent months.

He said he also wants to reopen businesses, but added “it is not worth it if we can’t do it safely.”

Under Hogan’s plan, movie theaters are permitted to open at 50 percent of capacity and performance venues can open at 50 percent, or up to 100 patrons for indoor performances and 250 for outdoor performances.

Houses of worship may increase the number of worshippers from 50 percent to 75 percent of capacity.

During his Phase 3 announcement on Sept. 1, the governor said state law empowers

individual counties to make their own decisions on whether to move into the next phase.

The next day at their weekly media briefing, Elrich and County Health Officer Travis Gayles said they, too, had only learned the day before that the state would allow jurisdictions to move to Phase 3 of recovery.

Elrich said he was disappointed in the governor’s surprise announcement and said neither he nor other elected officials in the state were consulted by Hogan on moving to the next level of reopening.

Hogan said the health metrics have improved enough to allow for the move to the third phase of reopening, but added the move “does not mean that this crisis is behind us.”

The county executive has reiterated that he will always use the numbers of cases, hospitalizations, deaths and more, and other scientific metrics, to guide decisions for the county, and that he could not give a specific “number” of when it would be right to move completely into Phase 3.

At the time of the governor’s Phase 3 announcement, Montgomery County’s case count was higher than it was when the county entered Phase 2 several months ago.

Daily case counts in late June when the county entered Phase 2 averaged 67 cases per day. The seven-day average of new confirmed cases was 85 in early September.

“I trust the approach that we’re taking,” Elrich said. “Our reports kind of speak for themselves.”

On Sept. 10, the county reported 53 positive cases of coronavirus after peaking at 140 cases the previous week.

Elrich said those fluctuating numbers “just shows you you don’t know what lies around the corner.”

On Sept. 1, Elrich said he and the county health officers already had approached the state about allowing small opportunities for entertainment in restaurants.

Montgomery County venues such as indoor and outdoor restaurants may now include live performances as part of their dining experience as long as crowds do not congregate around the entertainment, people remain seated at their tables and there is no dancing.

 

Hogan wants schools to plan to reopen; county says virtual is safer for now

 

Just days before Montgomery County Public Schools was set to begin the new year with virtual-only instruction on Aug. 31, Hogan said state school districts must begin getting children back into classrooms and made it clear he wants school buildings to begin opening for instruction in some manner before the end of the calendar year.

He authorized all school systems in the state to safely and fully reopen, citing decreasing positivity rates and other favorable data as the coronavirus health crisis continues.

Elrich, who for several weeks had been asking for state guidance for non-public school that wanted to open with in-person instruction or a hybrid of in-person and virtual, Tweeted a statement following Hogan’s Aug. 26 press conference, saying, “Montgomery County, like other school districts in the state, spent months planning for opening the school year virtually. Data was used to drive decisions so that children, teachers and education professionals were safe.”

Elrich also said, “Dropping this news, without warning, days before the start of school, causes unneeded disruption. County leaders and health officers should have been consulted, and at least warned, that this was coming.”

During his press conference, Hogan said data has gotten “dramatically better” since some school districts in the state made decisions to offer virtual-only instruction.

The day before, however, and in previous weeks, Elrich and county health officers have said although the data has improved from months ago, it is not yet good enough to risk the health and safety of students, teachers, school employees and parents.

The Montgomery County Board of Education and Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) officials thanked Hogan and State Superintendent of Schools Dr. Karen Salmon for their guidance on the return to in-person instruction.

“However, we are deeply disappointed by the last-minute announcement of this critical information for school systems,” according to a statement released after the governor’s press conference. “MCPS will begin the school year in a virtual-only instructional model on Aug. 31, as scheduled. We know many in our community will have questions about what this new guidance means for our students. Please allow us time to thoughtfully assess these important developments and continue to prepare for a successful start to the school year.”

Montgomery school officials have said they are working with county health officials on a process to bring in small groups of students, such as students in specific special education programs, to help those students get needed in-person instruction.

The county school system has said it will offer virtual instruction through the first semester, which ends in late January.

“Our focus remains on the academic needs and the health and safety of our students and staff,” the school board and school officials said.

Hogan said state law allows each school system to make its own decision on whether to reopen in-person, virtual-only or a hybrid of the two.

But he said it is “not acceptable” for a school system not to have a plan for bringing students back in some form, and Salmon said she is strongly encouraging school systems across the state to re-evaluate opening school buildings after the first quarter.

“I think we’re going to go back and put pressure on them,” he said, adding, “We’re going to do what we can within the law.”

On Sept. 1, the governor thanked the State Board of Education for voting to require those school systems that have not developed a plan for returning any students for any in person instruction until 2021 to re-evaluate their reopening plans by the end of the first quarter.

 

    Visit governor.maryland.gov/recovery for information about the “Maryland Strong: Roadmap to Recovery.”

    For more Montgomery County information, visit

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