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Mask mandate amended to prevent rapid changing of mask mandate

by Judith Hruz


Montgomery County has evaded a potential back-and-forth mask requirement by amending a Board of Health regulation to require seven consecutive days of substantial COVID-19 transmission before an indoor face covering requirement is reinstated in areas open to the public.

Montgomery Count lifted its mask mandate at 12:01 a.m. Oct. 28 after recording seven consecutive days of moderate COVID-19 transmission, down from the higher substantial transmission rate, Dr. James Bridgers, acting county health officer, said in removing the mask requirement.

That mandate was outlined in Board of Health regulation 19-975, adopted on Aug. 5.

However, increasing COVID-19 case numbers after the mask requirement was suspended made it likely that the county would have to require masks again — soon — and that back-and-forth change would continue unless additional action was taken.

The County Council, sitting as the county Board of Health, amended the regulation unanimously on Nov. 2, allowing for seven consecutive days of any transmission category before the mask mandate would be dropped or reinstated.

The county’s health officer is required to report to the county executive and the County Council when the numbers change from one transmission category to another.

The Board of Health amendment was considered ‘in an effort to prevent a proverbial yo-yo effect, if you will,” Bridgers said.

“Montgomery County has one of the best rates in the nation for vaccinations and limiting the spread of COVID-19 because we have consistently made public health decisions based on data and guidance from our top health officials,” Council President Tom Hucker (D-Dist. 5) said. “The goal of this amendment is to balance public health concerns with stability and predictability for residents on indoor masking guidance. This approach is meant not only to keep each of us safe but to help keep everyone else safe.”

“We thank all of our residents for their patience and ongoing efforts to help drive down COVID-19 transmission rates across our county,” said Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz (D-At large), who also serves as chair of the council’s Health and Human Services Committee. “We are fortunate to be in a new phase of this pandemic where we have third doses of COVID-19 vaccine and boosters available for so many of our residents. We also stand ready with plans to vaccinate 5- to 11-year-old children as soon as approval is granted. We will continue to evaluate the public health data as it comes in and work closely with our public health team to validate this updated approach to indoor masking in public spaces.”

A seven-day period for monitoring COVID-19 transmission rates provides a more accurate picture of public health trends related to the virus and eliminates quick swings back and forth on indoor masking requirements, council members said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) classifies transmission values as low, moderate, substantial or high. If there is a change in COVID-19 transmission levels from substantial to moderate, the seven-day clock for determining substantial transmission stops. The seven-day clock is restarted when the community enters the substantial transmission range.

According to the CDC, the category of “substantial” transmission in reached when a community registers at least 50 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents or has an 8 percent to 9.99 percent test positivity rate over the past seven days.

The category of “moderate” transmission is reached when a community registers at least 10 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents or has a 5 percent to 7.99 percent test positivity rate over seven consecutive days.

The CDC recommends that any jurisdiction in the high or substantial categories require masks indoors.

The amended Board of Health regulation:

Requires that residents must wear face coverings in indoor areas open to the public when notice is given by the health officer or a designee that the county has been an area of substantial COVID-19 transmission for seven consecutive days.

Provides that the health officer or designee must promptly take reasonable steps to notify the public if the county has become an area of substantial transmission for seven consecutive days.

Requires the health officer to begin counting a period of seven consecutive days on the day that the transmission status of the county changes according to the CDC.

Requires that the mandate to wear face coverings in indoor spaces open to the public terminates without further action by the Board of Health when the county returns to a status of moderate transmission for a period of seven consecutive days.

Masks must continue to be worn in county public schools and on public transportation.

The Maryland State Department of Education sets the policy for public schools and the federal government sets the transportation policies.

Owners of private businesses may also mandate that masks and face covering be worn in their establishments.

Despite the low numbers, residents would be better off if they continued to stay masked even if mandate is lifted, County Executive Marc Elrich has said on several occasions.

“There is no reason to take it off,” County Executive Marc Elrich said during his weekly media briefing Oct. 27.

“The virus is still here,” he added.

The CDC recommends that anyone who is unvaccinated should continue to wear a mask or face covering when indoors or in crowded areas to minimize the potential spread of the virus.

“I know what I’m going to do,” Elrich said. “I’m going to keep on wearing a mask.”


Transportation requirements


The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) requirement for face coverings on all public transportation remains in place until at least Jan. 18 and pertains to all forms of public transportation in Montgomery County.

All passengers are required to wear face coverings when traveling by public transportation.

The regulation covers Montgomery County Ride On buses, Ride On extRa, Flex, Flash, Metrobus, Metrorail, taxis and on-demand car services. Riders must wear a face covering for the entire duration of their trip.

All Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) buses have a supply of face coverings for those who cannot provide their own.

Ride On services remain free to all passengers — a temporary change made during the COVID-19 health crisis.

MCDOT buses continue to be cleaned by the county’s Department of General Services twice daily with hospital-grade disinfectant. Bus filter and ventilation systems are also treated each night with a disinfectant.

For department programs and updates, visit the department website at montgomerycountymd.gov/mcdot, and subscribe to MCDOT’s ‘Go Montgomery!’ newsletter.

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