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Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said he will lift capacity limits on indoor and outdoor dining, retail businesses and fitness centers beginning March 12. (Video: Gov. Larry Hogan)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Tuesday said he will lift capacity limits on indoor and outdoor dining, retail businesses, fitness centers and religious establishments — the most dramatic steps taken toward reopening in the region since the winter surge in coronavirus cases.

The executive order from Hogan (R), scheduled to take effect at 5 p.m. Friday, allows large venues such as concert halls and theaters to return to 50 percent capacity and lets adult day-care centers reopen. Quarantine requirements for out-of-state travel are also being lifted. Masking requirements will stay in place, and bars and restaurants still can provide service only to seated customers and must ensure physical distancing among patrons.

“Each day brings us closer to seeing a light at the end of this very long tunnel,” Hogan said at a news conference announcing the new rules.

As of Tuesday, new daily cases and hospitalizations in Maryland had dropped to the levels they were in early November but were still higher than during the state’s summer peak. Just over a million residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

“The time is right,” Hogan said.

What to know about the vaccine rollout in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the Trump administration, appeared with Hogan at the news conference and commended the choice to reopen.

“The measures that you’re putting in place today are all sensible steps to get more of the economy opened in a smart, purposeful way,” said Redfield, who last week began formally advising the governor on reopening and vaccine distribution strategies.

Several public health experts said they disagreed with the move.

Boris Lushniak, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Health, warned last month that elected officials should approach this round of reopening slowly, cautiously and with the willingness to change course. Hogan’s Tuesday announcement came “about two to four weeks” earlier than he would have expected, Lushniak said.

“I worry about the dramatic steps taken,” he said. “Public health, in general, is warning everybody that it’s not over. . . . The signal this gives is as if things have already turned the corner.”

Eric Toner, a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said he thinks lifting capacity limits at indoor locations is “a mistake in judgment.” With just 1 in 10 Maryland residents fully vaccinated, he said, there are still far too many unprotected individuals who could get and transmit the virus, particularly as more-contagious variants take hold.

Local governments in Maryland retain authority to keep stricter rules in place, as they have in the past. Officials from Montgomery, Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties said Tuesday evening that they were not informed ahead of Hogan’s order; they and officials in Baltimore City were evaluating whether to opt in or out.

Montgomery County Council President Tom Hucker (D-District 5) said Hogan’s order was “shocking and reckless.”

“It’s a complete slap in the face to local authority,” he said, adding that the announcement has made it harder for the county to maintain its existing restrictions, which health officials say are necessary to keep cases down and avert another virus surge.

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Earlier Tuesday, Montgomery officials said they would not be making significant changes to the county’s pandemic restrictions but were weighing loosening the 10-person cap on indoor gatherings and the 25-person limit for outdoor spaces, as well as relaxing restrictions on child-care operations.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) plans to propose an executive order to the council Wednesday, and if approved, the changes will take effect next week, Health Officer Travis Gayles told lawmakers.

Montgomery officials on Tuesday also called on the state to increase the allocation of vaccine doses to the suburb, which is Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction. Some cited a recent study that found that small, rural counties had received far more doses per capita than more-populous jurisdictions.

“We’ve demonstrated that we’re capable of doing more than we’re doing,” said Earl Stoddard, the county’s head of emergency management. “That should be evidence enough to them that 4,500 doses a week is well below our threshold and capability.” The county is working to launch its own mass vaccination site but has yet to receive approval or support from the state, he added.

Hogan said Maryland is opening two more mass vaccination sites in the next two weeks — a Salisbury facility next week and a Hagerstown site on March 25, a week ahead of schedule. Hogan added that the state is “in discussion with a number of jurisdictions regarding additional sites as supply of vaccines increases” but did not address Montgomery’s request for a mass site.

The governor added that the White House’s coronavirus task force told the nation’s governors earlier Tuesday that vaccine supply will remain relatively flat for the next two weeks but ramp up in April and May.

More than 1 million coronavirus cases reported in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

Coronavirus infections in Maryland and Virginia have been decreasing at a steady rate this week, but D.C. saw a slight uptick, with 331 new cases reported Tuesday. In a statement, city officials said 135 of the cases are new and 196 are “backlogged cases from February 2021.”

A similar reporting lag caused Virginia’s covid-19 death numbers to spike last month, adding more than 900 fatalities — many of them part of a post-holiday-season surge — to the state’s daily totals. While officials said the error was reportedly fixed on Thursday, the number has again been on the rise since then.

Alena Yarmosky, spokeswoman for Gov. Ralph Northam (D), said deaths are a “lagging indicator” that reflect cases that may have been contracted weeks earlier.

At a news conference Tuesday, Northam noted that Virginia’s first known coronavirus case was detected about a year ago and that the anniversary of the state’s first covid-19 death comes this Sunday.

“None of us knew what was coming,” he said, noting the death of more than 9,000 Virginians, as well as lost jobs, income and financial security. “It has been a hard year for everyone.”

As he encouraged Virginians to get vaccinated, State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver noted that a more infectious variant of the disease first found in the United Kingdom “could become the dominant variant in the commonwealth” in the next month. He said there is no evidence that the variant causes more-serious disease, but it is more infectious.

“We’re in a race to get everyone vaccinated before we run up against some variant that is resistant or more deadly,” Oliver said. “I really encourage people to get vaccinated as soon as you can.”

Those we have lost to the coronavirus in Virginia, Maryland and D.C.

Fairfax County and Alexandria officials say they have partnered with Inova Health System to create a large-scale vaccination center in a formerly vacant office building on Eisenhower Avenue. The site, which they hope to launch by the end of the month, will be equipped to vaccinate 6,000 per day and could expand to double that, officials said.

As of this week, however, there is nowhere near the number of vaccine doses available to fill that capacity. The center is meant to supplement other health-care providers and an existing mass vaccination site at the Fairfax County Government Center.

The new site has hundreds of parking spots and a bus stop out front and is down the street from the Van Dorn Street Metro station.

“This will be one more location to make it more convenient,” said Jeff C. McKay (D-At Large), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

Steve Thompson in Washington and Laura Vozzella in Richmond contributed to this report.

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