by Jay Joseph ‘22
On September 5, Maryland moved onto Phase 3 of reopening, allowing all businesses to open with a mask requirement statewide. Cinemas and theaters were allowed to reopen with their capacity capped at 50 percent or 100 people, whichever was less. Outdoor venues were allowed to host live performances or outdoor movies with their capacity limited at 50 percent or 250 people, whichever was less again. Houses of worship and retailers could now increase their capacity to 75 percent.
The new phase of reopening began after test positivity rates lowered. Currently, on September 25, the test positivity rate in Maryland over a seven-day average is 2.6 percent, and it is the same over a three-day average in Montgomery County. Both the state and county are under the five-percent positivity rate recommended by the WHO to begin easing pandemic-related restrictions.
However, Montgomery County, along with three other counties, remained in Phase 2 on September 5, vowing not to enter Phase 3 until they were confident they could reopen safely. Instead, the county continued to lift pandemic related closings, restrictions, and rules on a case-by-case basis. For instance, both indoor and outdoor restaurants in Montgomery County now host live performances with their capacity capped at 50 percent. However, guests cannot congregate or dance in both indoor and outdoor restaurants.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich and Dr. Travis Gayles, Health Officer and Chief of Public Health Services for Montgomery County, directed this attentive response. They decided not to enter Phase 3, listing the higher weekly average of new cases in Montgomery County compared to June and the plateau of new case numbers in August. Elrich also attributed the county’s long-term decrease in cases to its measured response. Wary of states that spiked in cases after rushing reopening, Elrich concluded that the government would withstand revenue-loss since the expense of reclosing businesses would be more difficult if an upward trend presented itself again. Instead, the county set its own requirements for reopening.
Montgomery County’s requirements to enter Phase 3 list that there be a sustained decrease for 14 days over a three-day average in new confirmed cases, new related deaths, new related emergency room patients, related ICU hospitalizations, and a decreasing percentage in test positivity. The same applies to the acute care bed utilization rate that must remain under 70 percent, the ICU bed utilization under 80 percent, and the ventilator utilization under 70 percent. As of September 23, only five of the nine requirements have been met or are trending towards fulfilling the 14-day requirement. Other requirements repeatedly miss the 14-day mark, plus the related acute care bed utilization rate still wavers at the capacity goal.
Gov. Larry Hogan criticized Montgomery County for setting their own standards to enter Phase 3, only elevating tensions after MCPS went virtual for the fall semester against Maryland’s goal to reopen in-person and the dispute over non-public schools reopening.
Gayles ordered the closings of all schools until October 1 on August 5, since younger groups account for 17-18 percent of cases. In response, a lawsuit from parents of private school students (for violating the separation of church and state) and Maryland Republican House leaders urged Hogan to rescind the health officers’ authority to close non-public schools. On August 6, State Health Secretary Robert Neall revoked the power of local officials to close independent and private schools (unless the school failed to meet the CDC and Maryland State Department of Education’s guidelines). Some of these schools then reopened.
Since then, the county has opened at least thirteen investigations into non-public schools with cases, despite claims that these schools were better suited to handle Covid-19 with their larger campuses and better resources. Due to these outbreaks, Gayles maintains that all schools should avoid in-class learning. MCPS nevertheless receives criticism from the state and many parents, students, and teachers who are concerned over mental health, loss of routine, extracurriculars, and childcare.
Montgomery County also took the initiative to provide free testing and improve contact tracing in minority zip codes to combat the disproportionate number of cases seen among the black and Latino population in the county. The actions taken by Montgomery County over the past two months highlight its cautious response to Covid-19. While some, including Hogan, deem it detrimental to its citizens, the response is still widely praised. The county urges Marylanders to remain cautious and vigilant to keep Maryland open.