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Hogan joins Northam in allowing hard-hit localities to opt out of reopening

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan at a news conference in April. (Brian Witte/AP)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has told leaders of the Washington suburbs and other places hit hard by the novel coronavirus that they will be able to opt out of a gradual reopening he plans to announce Wednesday, according to officials involved in the conversations.

The decision could keep the entire D.C. region under extended restrictions even as more-remote areas begin to restart their economies.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed an executive order Tuesday extending the shutdown of Northern Virginia until at least May 28, two weeks after restrictions will probably be lifted for the rest of the state.

Northam intends to move most of Virginia into “phase one” of his reopening plan on Friday, but areas close to the nation’s capital will remain at “phase zero” until the region’s number of new cases and other data related to the outbreak take a more positive turn.

“Virginia is doing well,” Northam said in an interview Tuesday on Washington Post Live. “There are obviously some areas, to include Northern Virginia, [where] the numbers are not as good. While they’re trending in the right direction . . . they don’t feel that they’re ready to go into phase one.”

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has issued an executive order that will allow Northern Virginia to begin its phased reopening May 28, two weeks after the rest of the state. "While they're trending in the right direction, their percent positivity is down over the last few days, they don't feel that they're ready to go into Phase 1...It's all about safety and the well being of Virginians." (Video: Washington Post Live)

Asked how long he would let the state’s economic engine idle, Northam said: “As long as it takes. This is about safety.”

Hogan plans to announce timing for Maryland’s first phase of reopening on Wednesday. But he reassured leaders of the state’s most populous jurisdictions on Tuesday that they will be able to maintain a stay-at-home order as they see fit, according to multiple people on the call.

The executives of Montgomery, Prince George’s, Anne Arundel, Frederick and Baltimore counties, as well as Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D), conferred on Monday about the need to keep restrictions in place even if Hogan loosens them statewide.

In a call with Hogan and other local leaders on Tuesday, several of those officials warned that — with testing still limited, hospitals in high demand and cases leveling off but not declining — they were not ready to remove the strict social distancing measures that have been in place since early April.

“I’ll do whatever I have the power to do to keep us safe,” Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said in an interview. “And I’m not alone in this.”

FAQ: What will it take for Maryland to reopen?

Elrich and others said Hogan told them he plans to announce a partial reopening at a 5 p.m. news conference on Wednesday.

Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci would not confirm those plans but said the governor — who is under pressure to reopen from Republicans in more-rural parts of the state — has discussed a regional approach with local leaders.

“We recognize that there are some counties, such as Montgomery and Prince George’s, that are not ready to reopen,” Ricci said. “The governor’s plan does take a flexible and regional approach.”

Montgomery and Prince George’s account for about half of the state’s coronavirus-related cases and deaths, Elrich noted. Both recorded a jump in new cases and deaths on Tuesday, with Montgomery reporting a total of 7,130 cases and Prince George’s a total of 9,892.

There have been 1,756 fatalities across the state — 780 of which are in Montgomery and Prince George’s.

Maryland reported 688 new cases statewide Tuesday, and 73 additional deaths. In the District, there were 96 new cases and eight new deaths; in Virginia, there were 730 new cases and 41 additional deaths.

Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) said she was pleased that Hogan will let local leaders make the call, given that intensive care units at hospitals in Prince George’s are about 80 percent full.

“If we open too quickly, people will become sick, and we don’t have the capacity to care for them,” Alsobrooks said. “We want to return our community to some sense of normalcy. . . . But we have a duty to do so safely.”

To reopen, Alsobrooks said, the county also needs more tests and contact tracers from the state.

Covid-19 is ravaging one of the country’s wealthiest black counties

Prince George’s County Council member Derrick Leon Davis (D-District 6), who chairs the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said the county is not ready to reopen, and he does not think the state is either.

“Do we reopen just because everyone else does? I don’t think we should.,” Davis said.

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) said local leaders were left “scrambling” last week, when Hogan announced that golf courses, playgrounds, beaches and state parks could reopen at 7 a.m. the next day: “We got on the phone with our county health officer frantically trying to decide what to do.”

The county opted to keep playgrounds and the beaches that dot its more than 530 miles of shoreline closed, much to the frustration of residents.

Pittman said none of Maryland’s eight largest jurisdictions, which account for more than 88 percent of the state’s cases, have met all the benchmarks Hogan set for a broader reopening, including sufficient numbers of tests, protective equipment and contact tracers.

Several counties are striking deals with private labs to do testing, Pittman said, while the 500,000 tests Hogan secured from South Korea have not been made available to local governments.

Here’s why so few of the tests Hogan bought from South Korea have been used

In Baltimore, home to the fourth-highest number of cases and deaths in the state, a mayoral spokesman said Young wants to take a slow approach rather than rush forward to open the economy at the cost of public health.

“The mayor’s position is: You can bounce back from just about anything but death. Finances can recover,” spokesman Lester Davis said.

In Virginia, Northam is moving ahead with a bifurcated reopening, allowing certain types of businesses outside Northern Virginia to resume operations starting Friday, with strict social distancing and cleaning measures in place.

In preparation, Main Street Mill Restaurant in Front Royal activated its beer taps on Tuesday for the first time in weeks and updated the outdoor sign to include “Join us May 15 for deck seating.”

“Being able to open up, even a little bit, will hopefully mean that our restaurant can stay in business,” said owner Alice Barnhart.

FAQ: What will it take for Virginia to reopen?

She said she welcomes customers from all over the state, even though Northam has said that residents of Northern Virginia should remain at home.

“We will be able to see if anyone does cough or sneeze, and we will be able to sanitize that station,” Barnhart said, adding that she has instructed all of her employees to watch videos from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how to keep the restaurant clean.

Sibby’s Restaurant & Lounge, a small barbecue shop in nearby Warrenton, said it won’t relaunch dine-in service because of the restrictions that would come with such a decision. Servers must wear masks and gloves, menus must be disposable and only outdoor seating is allowed, at half capacity.

“I would not want to come to a restaurant where somebody is standing there with masks and gloves,” said George Jolley, the restaurant’s owner.

He said he hopes that catering and takeout service will power his family-owned business for now.

Michael McMahon’s Celtic House Irish Pub & Restaurant in Arlington must remain closed until at least May 28 under the executive order Northam signed Tuesday. He said he is worried that his restaurant will collapse if he cannot welcome customers back soon — not just to his small outdoor patio, but also at tables indoors.

“If they open patios, with no one allowed inside, it will cause a serious problem for me,” he said.

Jonathan Elkhouri, who owns Salon Khouri in Fairfax County with his wife, Jennifer, said they felt as if their feet had been knocked out from under them when Northam announced that their area would remain closed.

After the governor first spoke of a reopening last week, Elkhouri’s staff reopened bookings, began calling regular clients and hastened to make other preparations.

“Honestly, I was screaming at the top of my lungs,” Elkhouri said of the decision to exclude Northern Virginia, which came at the request of the region’s leaders. “I was completely shocked and appalled.”

Northam said he is doing what is needed to keep people safe. He urged Virginians to remain vigilant about social distancing — or “physical distancing,” as he prefers to call it — and said restrictions on the state’s beaches, which are open only for fishing and exercise, could remain in place for some time.

“We want people, with the warm weather, to be able to get back onto the beaches. But we need to do it safely,” Northam said. “We’re living in a new day.”

Northam also renewed his criticism of President Trump’s “mixed messages” about the novel coronavirus. He recalled being on a video call with the president a few weeks ago in which Trump reviewed CDC guidelines calling for 14 days of positive data trends before reopening.

“Two days later, he was talking about liberating Virginia,” Northam said, referring to Trump’s tweets encouraging protests in opposition to state shutdowns.

Emily Davies and Fredrick Kunkle contributed to this report.

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