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by Judith Hruz
Montgomery County officials have loosened some of the restrictions designed to keep the community safe from the coronavirus, but did not lift all restrictions for capacity levels at restaurants, gyms, houses of worship and other gathering spots as the governor did.
County Executive Marc Elrich (D) and the Montgomery County Council said that health metrics and common sense do not warrant lifting all restrictions.
In Maryland under the governor’s order, capacity limits on indoor and outdoor dining establishments were removed starting March 12 at 5 p.m.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) made his announcement on March 9, the same day Dr. Anthony Faulci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Disease and chief medical advisor on COVID-19 to President Joe Biden (D), congratulated and thanked Montgomery County on the work it has done to keep residents safe.
It was also a week after Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, expressed concern over states relaxing restrictions too early.
County Council President Tom Hucker (D-Dist. 5) said he agrees with county and national health leaders that it is not a time to relax the safeguards.
He said the county has received “clear instructions from the nation’s experts” and added that all local medical experts have recommended putting safety first.
County leaders were surprised by Hogan’s announcement to lift all restrictions. They were not told ahead of time and the county health officers, who are state employees, were not consulted.
Councilman Will Jawando (D-At large) called Hogan’s action “irresponsible and reckless,” especially given that the action was taken before St. Patrick’s Day and Spring Break.
“Our job is to do what’s best for Montgomery County residents,” Hucker said during an afternoon media briefing on March 12.
Earlier that afternoon, the County Council, sitting as the Board of Health, approved its own list of new guidelines that went into effect at 5 p.m. March 12.
Outdoor dining – aligned with Maryland’s Department of Health guidance.
Indoor dining – capacity remains at 25 percent until March 26 when it will increase to 50 percent.
Child care – may return to group sizes and staff-child ratios in accordance with state regulations.
Outdoor gatherings – have been increased to 50 people or less.
Indoor gatherings – have been increased to 25 people or less.
Retail establishments and businesses, such as fitness centers or hair or nail salons, as well as museums and art galleries, can operate at 25 percent capacity.
Houses of worship – can conduct services at 50 percent capacity.
Sports played outside – can now occur with 50 people or less.
Indoor sports activities – can be played with 25 people or less.
On March 26, capacity limits will increase to 50 percent for retail establishments, personal service facilities, fitness centers, bowling alleys, escape rooms, museums, art galleries and pools..
Also on March 26, theaters, social clubs and all amusement venues will be able to operate at 25 percent capacity.
The council also passed two amendments, one allowing a letter-of-approval process for sporting events wanting a higher number of participants and another allowing youth ice hockey to be played at a percentage-based capacity, not a specific number.
Before Hogan’s announcement, Elrich said he had been preparing to allow further openings, but would do it with more caution.
“Every time we open a door and increase capacity, we increase risk,” he said, meaning risk of illness or death.
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