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by Judith Hruz
On March 5 of last year, on his way home from Annapolis after being told that three people in Maryland had tested positive for COVID-19, District 14 Sen. Craig Zucker stopped at the CVS drugstore in Ashton.
He needed nothing in the store.
But he had a hunch, and wanted to see if it was correct.
It was: The shelves that normally carried hand sanitizer were already empty.
He called County Executive Marc Elrich and told him what he found – or what he did not find.
Zucker knew those bare shelves were a harbinger of things to come.
And so it began …
The next day, Elrich joined county leaders at a press conference to confirm what the governor had announced the night before – that the state’s first three cases of the coronavirus, known as COVID-19, were Montgomery County residents who had traveled abroad.
The couple in their 70s and a woman in her 50s had taken a cruise on the Nile River.
County leaders reiterated that there was no reason for panic.
“We want to make it clear that this is not a crisis,” County Councilman Sidney Katz (D-Dist. 3), who was then the council president, said.
He said he has confidence in the county’s health officials.
Elrich, who opened the event saying it was “one of those press conferences you don’t want to have to do,” assured the community that “the risk to the general public is still very low.”
“We’ve been preparing for this scenario since January,” Elrich told a room packed with media and officials at the Executive Office Building in Rockville.
He said he understood “that people are anxious” and stressed the normal precautions of staying away from those who are sick, refraining from traveling when ill, washing hands and using hand sanitizers, and covering the mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing.
Gov. Larry Hogan had declared a State of Emergency the night before after announcing the COVID-19 cases in Montgomery County.
Montgomery County Public Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles stressed that a State of Emergency declaration allowed officials to mobilize staff to meet the needs of the community.
Gayles also stressed that the three victims of COVID-19 contracted the virus while traveling and were isolated in their homes.
He said that to his knowledge as of that day, March 6, “we don’t have any evidence of community-transmitted cases of COVID-19.”
One week later, on March 12, Hogan ordered all public schools in the state to close March 16 through March 27, put a stop to all large public gatherings, and issued other sweeping guidelines and directives.
That order came after he announced that a patient in Prince George’s County contracted the virus in some way other than by traveling outside the country.
It was the first case of community transmission of COVID-19 in Maryland, Hogan said.
On March 13, 17 patients with COVID-19 were reported in Maryland, including six in Montgomery County.
And so it continued … and continued …
One thing that became certain in those early weeks after the first confirmed cases of coronavirus in Maryland was that information, cancellations and concern were rampant during the ever-evolving public health crisis.
Governments, schools, organizations, medical facilities, businesses, houses of worship — nearly everyone — began scrambling to make decisions on closings and cancellations, and most did so based on an abundance of caution.
The numbers of cases in Montgomery County, the state, the regional and the country rose steadily in the spring. Montgomery County, the most populous county in the state, led the state with the most cases.
Public access to government buildings was restricted; events were canceled; sporting events were canceled or held without spectators; and all nursing homes, medical facilities and hospitals enacted tighter visitor policies, and then closed to visitors altogether.
Following Hogan’s action to close all public schools and suspend large gatherings, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington announced that Masses open to the public in all archdiocesan parishes, missions and campus ministries would not be celebrated starting March 14, until further notice.
Businesses were required to close partially or completely, and many are still recovering, if they ever will.
Empty shelves that once held disinfectant and toilet paper greeted shoppers at grocery stores.
In some stores, cashiers are still wiping down the conveyer belts and credit card payment pads between customers.
Beloved events such as the Greater Olney Civic Association’s annual Awards Ceremony on March 15 last year was canceled and Sherwood High School’s Rockville ‘n’ Roll Revival, scheduled to go on for a second weekend of shows March 13-15, was canceled mid-run last year.
The Olney Civic Fund canceled Olney Days, a decades-old celebration of the community, last year and in recent weeks announced its cancellation again this spring.
The Olney Chamber of Commerce canceled its popular National Night Out and Community Night, among other events.
The Women’s Board supporting MedStar Montgomery Medical Center canceled its 100th Picnic and Bazaar in late July.
High school graduations were held creatively and virtually, and graduates were celebrated with parades and other socially distant event.
In accordance with Hogan’s actions prohibiting public events of more than 250 people, Olney Theatre Center ended its production of “The Amateurs” — ironically, set amid a 14th-century plague — halfway through its run.
MedStar Montgomery Medical Center President Thomas J. Senker had said the hospital was committed to protecting and supporting the health and well-being of the Olney and Montgomery County community.
He said the hospital was actively monitoring the evolving status of the coronavirus and that its team “remains in a constant state of readiness for treating complex illness, including COVID-19.
Hogan also postponed that the Primary Election to June 2.
The Primary had been set for April 28, but postponing will keep Marylanders safe and protect their Constitutional right to vote, he said in a briefing from Annapolis.
The 2020 session of the Maryland General Assembly ended abruptly last March.
And now …
A year later, the community has settled into an unsettling new normal.
Restrictions still apply to how businesses, organizations, houses of worship and events can open. For the most part, private schools have been open, but Montgomery County Public Schools was scheduled to begin bringing students back for in-person instruction on March 1.
Many people are still working from home.
Social distancing is paramount. Hand sanitizer is everywhere. And masks are the must-have fashion accessory.
But there is hope.
With the arrival of vaccines, the community is feeling more and more hopeful that life will go back to a closer version of the old normal soon.
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