BEL AIR, Md. — Some employees felt trepidation at first, stepping back more than twice the social distancing recommendation if someone walked by them in a hallway.

Two months later, things have changed dramatically. Harford County government workers gather in small clusters to discuss their weekends. Some started sitting at their desks unmasked — weeks before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said doing so was safe for fully vaccinated residents.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve become more lax, but no one is moving 15 feet away when someone walks by,” said Paul Lawder, director of inspections for the county government, standing about two arms’ lengths from a masked co-worker the other day.

Many office workers in the Washington region and around the country are just starting to contemplate a return to their cubicles, as case numbers plummet and Maryland and Virginia are lifting mask mandates. But the approximately 1,000-person government workforce in this red-leaning county north of Baltimore transitioned back to their pre-pandemic work spaces in March.

Only about half were vaccinated, and County Executive Barry Glassman (R) faced a small amount of backlash from employees who feared for their safety. It didn’t help that Harford was part of a sharp spike in cases in parts of Maryland in March and early April — which has since subsided, and which did not involve many county employees.

Glassman says he viewed his decision to bring all county workers back as a “talk the talk, walk the walk” stance. Residents were pushing for in-person school and Little League, and he wanted businesses to fully open and public school students to go back into classrooms.

“It’s time for government buildings to be the same way,” he recalled thinking back then, when positivity rates were still high but slowly dropping and vaccines were in short supply. “We’ve got to get back to normalcy, too.”

With Gov. Larry Hogan (R) deciding to lift the statewide mask mandate on Saturday, Glassman said, county employees will no longer be required to wear face coverings in the office. He will continue to encourage unvaccinated people — who health experts say should stay masked indoors, for their own safety and the safety of others — to wear masks and get vaccinated.

The county’s experience could be a harbinger of what’s to come for more densely populated parts of Maryland and Virginia, as well as Washington, where Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) wants workers to start returning on a voluntary basis later this month.

Harford employees say they have come to accept the possible risk of exposure as a part of the necessary return to pre-pandemic life. The seven-day average of new daily cases was down on Friday to 7.21 per 100,000 residents — the lowest rate since October in Harford, and slightly lower than the statewide average of 7.61, but significantly higher than places such as Montgomery County, where the seven-day average was 3.91 per 100,000 residents.

The county’s Veronica B. “Roni” Chenowith Senior Activity Center reopened in Fallston a couple of weeks ago and is filled with mostly vaccinated older residents enthusiastically playing pickleball and basketball after a hiatus of more than a year.

“It feels normal again,” said Joyce Trageser, the manager of the senior center, watching the action on an indoor court the other day. “Oh my gosh, it’s been so unnormal. I couldn’t want to get back.”

Navigating a spike

During a recent interview, Glassman glanced at his cellphone to read a text he receives daily. It relays the number of overnight ambulance calls in the county of about 255,000 in which the patient was suspected to have covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

On this day, there were seven. Glassman shook his head with concern but not alarm. “There are still folks out there [going to the hospital]. That’s why I push the vaccine,” he said.

For much of the pandemic, Harford fared better than the state overall, with lower community transmission numbers. But the county numbers started to climb in November, before dropping in January.

When employees returned in early March, the county’s test positivity rate was 4.1 percent, lower than the 5 percent threshold set last spring by the World Health Organization to guide governments in reopening but higher than the state overall.

A month later, with cases spiking in the Baltimore region and the northeast part of the state, Harford’s positivity rate soared to 10.16 percent — the worst in Maryland.

“April was a pretty tough month for us,” Glassman said.

Only 17 infections involved county employees, all of whom quarantined, along with 16 other government workers who had been exposed. Glassman said he was told the county employees who contracted the virus typically caught it through out-of-state travel or family gatherings, not on the job.

Now the test positivity rate is back down to 3.61 percent.

Forty-four percent of county residents have received at least one dose of a vaccine, compared with nearly 57 percent in Howard County, the most-vaccinated place in the state. County officials are hoping the recent opening of a mass vaccination site at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen will increase those numbers for Harford. But they also recognize that there are many people in the county who are reluctant or may never get vaccinated.

Glassman waited to get vaccinated until county workers were also eligible got the shots. He thought it would be good for morale. When offices reopened, 50 percent of the county workforce had gotten vaccinated. The number has since bumped up to 60 percent, he said — possibly more because the county knows only about those who have been vaccinated through the county health department.

“Because of [health privacy laws] they can’t tell me who has not chosen to take it,” he said.

Steps toward normal

Members of the public are still mostly going online to conduct county business — paying utility bills, for example — so most government buildings are still fairly quiet.

One place where that is beginning to change is the county senior centers.

On the first day they opened, gray-haired men and women arrived in T-shirts and athletic shorts. A “Welcome Back You Were Missed” sign greeted them at the entrance. Volunteers and staff sat behind a plastic barrier. Along the wall was a new sign-in kiosk, a contact-tracing tool to identify where and how long seniors were in the building.

Four seniors played pickleball, a combination of tennis and badminton, on one indoor court, while another group of sweaty men played basketball.

Karen Winkowski, the administrator of the county’s Office on Aging, said she couldn’t help but notice that more men were back at the center than women.

“I think their wives were pushing them out the door,” she chuckled.

Jay Dibley, 76, said meeting his friends at the senior center was his only outlet aside from his golf buddies, whom he met occasionally on a course in neighboring Pennsylvania.

The course closed when cases spiked this fall, but Dibley said the owners allowed the men inside the clubhouse to play poker.

“I don’t want to say which club. I don’t want to get them in trouble,” he quickly added.

Now that he is inoculated and more of his friends have gotten vaccinated, he said he feels comfortable being out even more. He doesn’t understand those who have decided not to get vaccinated and almost wishes it was mandated.

“You get the flu shot every year,” he said shaking his head. “You’d think common sense would make you want to get it.”

Back in the county government building, Joel Gallihue, the chief of long range planning in the Department of Planning and Zoning, keeps a can of Lysol on the top shelf of a metal bookcase in his office.

His wife bought it for him when he returned to the office.

He is vaccinated, he said, but sprays it whenever he goes into a conference room for a meeting.

Though he wasn’t among those eager to return to in-person work, Gallihue said he has “felt better” since getting back — something he attributes to a basic need to be around other people.

“I hadn’t really realized how much the human interaction is important, so I was glad for it,” Gallihue said. “But I still feel as we reopen, we all have to be very careful.”