“I just think we’re being prematurely rushed,” Franchot said at a Board of Public Works meeting chaired by Hogan (R). “The virus is far from contained.”
Along with Montgomery, the city of Baltimore said it also will opt out of Hogan’s plan to allow all businesses to reopen — including movie theaters and entertainment venues — at 5 p.m. Friday. Howard and Baltimore counties announced that they would move ahead with lifting restrictions, while officials in Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties said they were evaluating the governor’s order and would announce their decisions on Thursday.
Most of those six jurisdictions, which account for more than 80 percent of the state’s caseload, have lifted pandemic restrictions at a slower pace than other parts of Maryland.
Hogan has empowered local officials to set the pace of reopening but in recent days has chided some counties for choosing online-only school reopening plans or maintaining restrictions on youth sports.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said at a news conference Wednesday he was disappointed by Hogan’s decision to move the state to Phase 3, adding that local elected officials and health officers were not consulted ahead of time.
Montgomery does not plan to enter the next reopening phase in the near future, Elrich said, but could lift certain restrictions on entertainment venues ahead of the Labor Day weekend.
Elrich sent a letter to Hogan last month urging him to allow live performances with audiences of less than 50 people. He said he was told last week that only businesses serving food could have live entertainment and was caught off guard by the state’s announcement Tuesday that all venues could resume operation.
Elrich declined to say when the county would be ready to follow the rest of the state into Phase 3 but noted that he is looking to match metrics of places such as New Jersey and New York, which have reported test positivity rates below 1.5 percent.
As of Wednesday, the three-day average of Montgomery’s test positivity rate was 3.1 percent. The statewide rate has hovered below 4 percent since the start of August.
“It is not party time yet. It is not time to relax,” Elrich said. “Our numbers got where they did by being careful. We’re going to continue being careful because I don’t want these numbers going back up.”
The number of new infections per day in Montgomery has plateaued since late June at about 60 to 80 cases. While the county avoided a rise in cases that plagued the Baltimore metropolitan region and the coastal areas of the state in July, it has not lowered its daily caseload to 30 or 40, which is the standard of “moderate transmission” the county wants before moving into the next phase, county Health Officer Travis Gayles said.
Baltimore, which reimposed some pandemic restrictions when cases spiked two months ago, won’t join the move to Phase 3 but will lift some restrictions after the holiday weekend. The city will allow dining establishments to resume indoor service up to 50 percent capacity.
“We do not want to erase the gains we have made over the past month by loosening restrictions now,” Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D) said during a news conference.
Howard, which has had the lowest case count of the six most populous jurisdictions, has generally kept pace with the state’s timeline for reopening since June. County Executive Calvin Bell (D) said Howard would enter Phase 3 this Friday, allowing movie theaters and entertainment venues to reopen at 50 percent capacity or 250 people and religious services to increase to 75 percent capacity.
For some venues, the lifting of restrictions that allow for small audiences won’t lead to reopening.
“We are still in dire and desperate need. This does nothing for us,” said Audrey Schaefer, a spokeswoman for Merriweather Post Pavilion, a Howard County outdoor amphitheater that typically hosts events with 6,000 to 18,000 attendees.
Merriweather this year was scheduled to host concerts by Rod Stewart, Halsey and Luke Bryan, but the events were canceled as the pandemic took hold. The lack of revenue has been crushing, Schaefer said.
Smaller music venues such as the Soundry in Howard County have shut their doors amid the crisis.
Maryland has seen its rolling seven-day average number of new infections decline over the past month, falling to 548 on Wednesday after hitting 940 on July 31. The state is averaging seven virus-related deaths per day.
On Tuesday, Hogan cited improving infection rates, the declining use of intensive care beds and expanded testing availability in saying it is safe to lift more of the restrictions that have been in place since March. He said the state’s efforts “have crushed the curve and saved lives,” while noting that restrictions will remain on certain activities.
Joshua Sharfstein, secretary of the Maryland Department of Health under former governor Martin O’Malley (D), said “things are certainly reasonably stable” in the region, but he cautioned residents against being complacent.
“It’s not like it’s falling to a very low number,” he said. “There’s still coronavirus out there, and it’s really important to stay vigilant.”
Neil J. Sehgal, assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, said that although several key metrics have improved recently, the public should remain cautious.
“We’re moving in a good direction, especially in this part of the country,” he said. “It seems like a preponderance of people have been vigilant and are respecting the guidance of public health officials.”
Sehgal cautioned that Maryland’s decision to move to Phase 3 could bring new challenges as people participate in activities that weren’t previously possible. He said the region may have reached an “irreducible minimum” of new cases, citing the lack of public motivation or political will for imposing new restrictions.
“Things are getting better, but we’re not going to get past it at this pace unless we step up our vigilance individually,” he said. “This virus is relentless. It does not rest.”
The seven-day rolling average of new cases in the greater Washington region stood at 1,610 on Wednesday, which is the highest daily average in more than a week as caseloads have mostly held steady. The increase is generally the result of cases slowly rising in northwestern and southwestern Virginia.
The region added 1,411 new cases and 35 deaths on Wednesday. D.C. reported 28 new cases and one death, Maryland had 456 cases and five deaths, while Virginia had 927 new cases and 29 deaths.
A recent rise in virus-related deaths in Virginia has increased the state’s seven-day average death toll to 18 — more than double the statewide average from mid-August. The rise is mostly the result of deaths in the Hampton Roads region. Northern Virginia’s numbers are holding steady.