Despite the decline, numbers continue to hover at levels that are much higher than last summer and that alarmed health experts in the fall ahead of the winter surge. Still, the recent trend was enough to prompt some leaders in the region Wednesday to slightly loosen the reins on winter’s tougher restrictions for the first time.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott (D) announced he would remove a rule on Monday that limits restaurant visits to one hour and would allow organized sports and fitness classes to resume, as long as participants wear masks. Fitness classes must have no more than 10 participants exercising in a large space and teams from outside Maryland cannot compete in youth sports tournaments.
Most live performances also will be allowed, as long as performers and audience members wear masks.
“Baltimore city continues to have one of the lowest positivity rates in the state, but residents and visitors must remain vigilant,” Scott said in a statement announcing the new rules.
Howard County Executive Calvin Ball (D) raised the limit on attendance at wedding venues and indoor and outdoor sports events, allowing as many as 100 fans indoors and 250 outdoors, depending on the size of the space. Previously, all events were capped at 10 people inside or 25 outside.
Ball said gatherings such as parties, cookouts and festivals should continue to adhere to those lower limits until conditions improve.
In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) raised the limit Wednesday on spectators at outdoor high school sports events from 25 to 250, while D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) called on the city’s health department to consider loosening restrictions on youth sports.
Northam said he might make more announcements about changes to restrictions next week if case rates continue to fall, but he also expressed concern about the effects of new variants of the virus.
“We’re making good progress, but we’re not at the point yet where we can lift a lot of these measures,” he said.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said late Wednesday that state health officials confirmed a case of the virus’s Brazil variant in a Maryland resident. Hogan said the case involves an adult older than 65 from the Washington region who recently died after traveling internationally.
The variant was first identified in the United States late last month.
A tiny portion of positive coronavirus cases are screened for variants and health officials said community spread is possible, noting that many cases aren’t connected to travel.
Since Virginia’s centralized preregistration system for vaccines opened Tuesday, Northam said, all 1.6 million records of people who previously had signed up for vaccines with participating health districts have been moved into the new system. He cautioned that some names might not show up until later in the week.
An additional 240,000 people have signed up through the centralized system, Northam said. A new state call center is operating, with 750 people taking calls from residents who need help registering for a vaccine.
Sixty-nine of the operators speak Spanish, Northam said, and callers can get calls back in 100 languages.
Northam also announced that he signed emergency legislation passed by the General Assembly to make more medical personnel eligible to administer vaccines and to require the collection of demographic data as doses are delivered.
He was less welcoming of a bipartisan proposal from state senators to create an Education Reserve Corps, allowing volunteers to teach in-person classes at public schools. Northam said he appreciated the sentiment but said he wants to make sure Virginia students are taught by qualified professionals.
He urged the General Assembly to boost teacher pay, which is being debated as lawmakers put the finishing touches on a state budget. Northam also reiterated his call for all school systems to offer in-person learning by March 15, saying all but three or four systems across the state have developed plans.
The greater Washington region on Wednesday added 3,092 new coronavirus infections and 59 fatalities. Virginia reported 2,284 cases and 38 deaths, while Maryland reported 759 cases and 18 deaths, and the District reported 49 cases and three deaths.
The region’s seven-day average number of new infections stood Wednesday at 3,631, down from a Jan. 12 peak of 8,698.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced late Wednesday that she expanded eligibility for the coronavirus vaccine. Beginning Thursday, workers in grocery stores, health and human services and social services outreach, manufacturing and food packaging will become eligible to book vaccination appointments in the city.
Expected winter weather will cause a delay for some residents scheduled to receive the vaccine Thursday. Officials across the region closed vaccine clinics, including mass vaccination sites in Prince George’s County and Baltimore.
Bowser, Northam and Hogan had asked the federal government last week to take responsibility for vaccinating as many as 30,000 federal workers in the region.
Christopher Rodriguez, the D.C. emergency management director, told members of the D.C. Council at a meeting Wednesday that the Biden administration would probably reject the request.
“We are hearing from FEMA that that request almost certainly will not be approved,” Rodriguez said. “We have not received anything official in writing.”
“That’s devastating, in a way,” Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) responded.
Ankoor Shah, the city’s vaccine program director, also dashed another of the District’s hopes for getting more doses, saying neighboring states won’t offer more loaned doses to cover the tens of thousands of nonresident workers getting vaccinated in the District.
“They nicely declined our multiple requests to pitch in to give vaccines,” Shah said about Maryland and Virginia, which initially provided enough doses to fully vaccinate about 8,000 of their residents who work in the District, but more recently have refused to send more doses amid a shortage across the region. “Actually, they’ve been asking us for vaccines, as well.”
Shah said the city is looking into creating more on-site vaccine clinics at apartment buildings where large numbers of seniors live, after starting such clinics at public housing buildings for seniors. He said the health department is researching which buildings have a sufficiently large number of seniors to make an on-site clinic feasible.
Ovetta Wiggins, Erin Cox and Rebecca Tan contributed to this report.