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Easing of outdoor mask mandate has some localities grappling with what the rules should be

People stroll on Main Street in Annapolis on Thursday, some masked and some not. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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A day after Gov. Larry Hogan (R) repealed Maryland’s universal outdoor masking order, some of the state’s biggest jurisdictions were grappling Thursday with what to do.

The repeal means many large gatherings may happen without face coverings: outdoor weddings, big neighborhood cookouts, festivals and parades — events at which federal health officials suggest everyone should still be masked.

And given that the state’s repeal order doesn’t distinguish between unvaccinated and vaccinated participants, some local governments that have the option of ignoring the repeal are trying to figure out how to send a stronger message that unvaccinated people should keep those masks on.

In Baltimore City, where cases spiked earlier this month, Mayor Brandon Scott (D) and health officials said it may take days to figure out a new outdoor masking policy, partly given the city’s low vaccination rates.

“You can safely assume three out of four people you encounter in public are not yet fully vaccinated,” a joint statement issued late Wednesday said.

In the state’s most populous jurisdiction, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) accused the governor of issuing policies that do “not comport” with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. County officials say they are keeping stricter rules in place for unvaccinated individuals.

Montgomery County ties reopening to how many have gotten shots

In Prince George’s County, home to the highest number of coronavirus cases in the state, health and legal officials spent Thursday debating their next steps.

Ever since the CDC said Tuesday that fully vaccinated people could safely forgo masks outdoors in most situations, state and local governments have been trying to adjust their rules.

Aides to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) say they are working on how and whether to adjust their policies to reflect CDC guidance. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) on Thursday said masks will now be required only at “large crowded events like concerts, sporting events, and graduation ceremonies,” and said up to 1,000 spectators would now be allowed at outdoor sporting events, a change that had been scheduled to take effect on May 15.

Fauquier County Public Schools said masks would be optional for outdoor activities such as gym class and recess, though staff and students should continue to socially distance.

In Maryland, state and local officials who embraced the repeal of the outdoor mask mandate are nevertheless urging residents to follow federal health guidance that only vaccinated people, with a few exceptions, forgo masks outdoors.

“People who are fully vaccinated can engage in more activities outdoors without a mask,” Anne Arundel County’s health officer, Nilesh Kalyanaraman, said in a statement Thursday. “People who aren’t yet vaccinated should continue to mask outdoors in most settings.”

Masks are still required indoors in Maryland and at ticketed, large-scale outdoor events such as concerts and sports games, which are still limited to 50 percent capacity.

The state’s universal masking order had been in place for more than year. Though local officials have the authority to keep it in place, most jurisdictions said they would drop it, along with ending distancing requirements and masking rules at outdoor bars and during outdoor dining.

Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said the administration recognized many people were starting to adopt pre-pandemic habits, so the goal was to steer people outside: “Given that public health experts have designated the risk of transmission outdoors as minimal, we sought to put in policies that encourage Marylanders to move as much activity outdoors as possible.”

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Montgomery’s latest health order states that the county would adopt mask guidelines from either the CDC or the Maryland Department of Health, whichever is stricter. It’s not yet clear how the county would enforce different guidelines for unvaccinated and vaccinated residents.

County council President Tom Hucker (D-District 5) said lawmakers are consulting with attorneys to determine if any changes to the regulations are needed.

Montgomery officials said that for now, county residents should continue to abide by mask guidelines issued by the CDC, which says unvaccinated individuals should continue to wear face coverings when attending small outdoor gatherings or dining outdoors.

“Our enforcement teams will continue to enforce the guidelines. If there are large outdoor gatherings of people of unknown or mixed vaccination status, we would expect our residents to continue to adhere to distancing and current CDC guidelines for masking,” Elrich spokesman Scott Peterson said.

The county will also still require social distancing and capacity limits at outdoor dining and bar establishments.

In recent weeks, Montgomery officials have sought to emphasize that their cautious, measured approach to lifting pandemic restrictions has kept the case rate low in the county. It has among the lowest per capita case rates in Maryland and as of Thursday reported the second-lowest test positivity rate after Kent County.

“These low rates validate the approach we have consistently taken to put public health first,” Elrich and the council said in a joint statement.

People seeking coronavirus vaccine appear eager to receive Johnson & Johnson

The region’s new coronavirus caseload continued its slow decline on Thursday, with the seven-day average of new infections in D.C., Maryland and Virginia at 2,057 — down from 2,611 on April 22 and 3,048 on April 15. The three jurisdictions reported 26 new deaths from covid-19.

The District has joined Maryland and Virginia in giving the green light to resume use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was halted when federal officials recommended a pause while it investigated extremely rare cases of blood clots. The CDC announced Friday that the vaccine could again be used.

Montgomery County said it will resume use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at clinics on Monday. The county has about 1,300 of the single-dose shots in storage and earlier this week started administering them to homebound residents.

The District will use some Johnson & Johnson doses at a few walk-up vaccination sites that will open this weekend. Those sites will later switch to Moderna or Pfizer shots, as the city has only a small supply of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The District provided a detailed chart of which sites will use which brand on which day, for any patients who want a vaccine without an appointment and want to know which vaccine they will receive.

Rachel Chason, Julie Zauzmer and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.

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