Montgomery officials said Thursday that a “concerning” uptick in cases triggered the pause to a plan that would have lifted certain restrictions on commercial activity this week.
On Wednesday, the number of new daily cases per 100,000 residents in the county reached 10 for the first time since Aug. 2. Hospitalizations have shown slight increases, officials say, though the test positivity rate has mostly held steady around 3 percent.
“We’re not at the point of alarming people,” said Earl Stoddard, the county’s head of emergency management. “We want to make sure we’re moving forward prudently.”
The county was considering lifting some restrictions on escape rooms, youth sports activities and live performances on Friday, but that plan was suspended while public health officials monitor the rise in cases and investigate sources of transmission, Stoddard said.
If the surge persists for weeks, officials said, they might have “more serious conversations” about the possibility of reimposing certain restrictions that have been lifted in Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction.
“Our goal is to avoid the spikes that other places are seeing,” Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said. “That’s territory we do not want to go into.”
The seven-day rolling average of new cases in Maryland, Virginia and the District stands at 1,704, up from 1,313 cases to start the month. Infections have been rising in the Washington region amid a coronavirus outbreak at the White House — although local health officials say there’s no clear evidence of a connection — and a drop in temperatures that’s bringing more activities indoors.
William Petri, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, said, “With the nice weather we can sit outside and have a cup of coffee and be six feet apart and have treasured social interaction with friends, but that’s going to be more and more difficult the colder it gets.”
He said as people make holiday plans through the end of the year, they need to remember 2020 “is not going to be like other years,” noting that gatherings with friends and family should be limited or avoided. Transmission of the coronavirus has similarities to that of a sexually transmitted illness, he said.
“You may have intercourse with one person, but they’re having intercourse with two other people, so you’ve been exposed to those people, too,” Petri said.
He said gatherings with others are never risk-free, but possible exposure will be most limited with a small group, while also knowing everyone within the group and the safety precautions they are taking. He warned against taking “unnecessary risks,” saying people should ask themselves whether planned social interactions outweigh the risk of exposure to the virus.
Ranit Mishori, a professor of family medicine at the Georgetown University School of Medicine and interim chief public health officer at the university, said a second wave of cases that experts predicted months ago is now unfolding.
“Even in March and April people said, ‘There’s going to be another wave,’ and here we are,” she said. “We’re bracing ourselves and hoping it won’t be as bad as the spring, but we’re also preparing for the worst.”
Mishori said that in the District the mortality rate is stable and hospitals have the capacity for more patients. She said, “The question on everyone’s mind is, is this going to explode?” She said adherence to the same safety protocols used for months will determine the virus’s spread as temperatures drop.
“It’s hard to predict what will happen,” Mishori said, noting that much of it depends on the public’s behavior, such as social distancing, washing hands, avoiding large gatherings and wearing a mask in public.
She said health experts are seeing what she calls “behavior creep,” such as eating indoors instead of outdoors or having friends visit a backyard — while not wearing masks or maintaining social distancing — after months of avoiding such situations. Those scenarios offer the virus additional opportunities to spread, she said.
“The notion that we can return to normal without a vaccine is misguided,” she said. “There’s not going to be any normal for a foreseeable future.
The pandemic has continued to create economic hardships in the region.
Labor Department figures released Thursday showed 25,443 people in Virginia, Maryland and the District had filed new unemployment claims for the week ending Oct. 10. That’s up from 23,486 claims filed one week earlier.
In addition to 1,995 new cases, the region on Thursday recorded 13 coronavirus-related fatalities. Virginia added 1,331 cases and seven deaths, Maryland added 630 cases and six deaths, and the District added 34 cases and no deaths.