“There are some additional things we can do safely, right now, prior to the lifting of the stay-at-home order,” Hogan (R) said before announcing that state parks and beaches will reopen at 7 a.m. Thursday for boating, camping, fishing and tennis. “I know how anxious people are to get outside.”
The state’s relatively flat hospitalization rate and the bolstering of its hospital system have made it possible to consider ending the most drastic social distancing measures next week, Hogan said, adding that his advisory panel of doctors and scientists supported the narrow relaxations.
For now, however, Hogan is not ready to carry out what he’s described as the “first phase” of his plan to reopen Maryland, which reported 47 new covid-19 deaths Wednesday.
Small shops must stay closed and most nonessential businesses are still barred from providing curbside service. All gatherings of more than 10 people remain prohibited.
But golf courses may reopen as of Thursday morning, along with the state park recreational facilities. And many elective surgeries — including dental work — will be permitted, said the governor, who is allowing hospitals and health-care providers to decide which procedures they offer.
To manage a potential surge in new cases, Hogan said, Maryland has added hospital capacity, ramped up testing, gathered a substantial amount of personal protective equipment for medical workers, and made progress on hiring contact tracers to identify and possibly isolate new cases.
Even with those efforts, many staples of ordinary life won’t resume for months. The state has a detailed plan for reopening schools before a vaccine becomes available — perhaps alternating days or weeks in the classroom, with distance learning in place when students are at home. But Salmon said a full return to regular instruction would be among the last things to occur, possibly in the final reopening phase that Hogan has designated for large-scale gatherings, such as sporting events and concerts.
In the meantime, Hogan maintained, the state has considerable work to do.
He cautioned that if the numbers do not continue to decline into next week, the stay-at-home order will not be lifted. “I’m not committing to it, because the numbers could spike back up,” he said.
Other Republicans have increasingly pressured Hogan to restart commerce in hopes that it would blunt the widespread economic pain that the social distancing rules have created.
More than 380,000 residents have filed for unemployment since mid-March, and Maryland Labor Secretary Tiffany P. Robinson said Wednesday that the state was sending out $170 million in benefits to residents every week — compared with about $7 million before the pandemic began.
Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), the state’s tax collector, estimated this week that 30 to 35 percent of Maryland’s small businesses won’t ever reopen.
“Marylanders have made incredible sacrifices in recent weeks, and because of that, thousands of lives have been saved, and the numbers of infections are so much better than they would have been,” Hogan said. “These are only small steps, and they may be of little comfort to those who are out of work and who are struggling financially.”
Many of those struggling, both financially and physically, are in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, home to the state’s highest volume of cases. Hogan on Wednesday announced that Gilead Sciences had donated 1,600 doses of the antiviral remdesivir — the only drug with federal approval to treat severe cases of covid-19 — for use in those communities.
In the District, officials focused Wednesday on a dramatic decline in tourism revenue due to the pandemic. The city has lost $1.7 billion in travel spending and expects to forgo an additional $163 million from the cancellation of 22 conferences at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.
The District has begun working on tentative plans to bring tourists back, focusing first on those who live within driving distance.
But the city’s tourism officials acknowledged that drawing travelers back to monuments, museums, local restaurants and entertainment venues will take work. They cautioned that advice from public health experts would help shape any messaging and marketing campaigns.
“We are not just going to return to normal operations,” said Gregory O’Dell, president of Events DC, which operates the convention center and other entertainment venues. “We may never see normal operations again.”
The city reported 13 new virus-related deaths Wednesday and released a map showing that the neighborhoods with the most cases — Columbia Heights (298), 16th Street Heights (273), Chinatown (249) and Brightwood (242) — were all in Northwest Washington. Ward 8, east of the Anacostia River, remains the ward with the highest death toll.
Asked about the small steps being taken toward reopening by Maryland, and similar steps by Virginia, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) offered no timetable for when she intends to lift restrictions.
“What we see in all of the jurisdictions — D.C., Maryland and Virginia — are growing case counts and continued community transmission,” Bowser said. “So we know opening up and people mixing in various ways are going to lead to increased infection.”
Her chief of staff, John Falcicchio, said officials in Northern Virginia may maintain restrictions even as Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) allows parts of the state with fewer outbreaks to open up.
Later Wednesday, Northam confirmed that would be his approach, saying Virginia’s harder-hit areas could keep more stringent covid-19 restrictions in place even if he begins easing statewide standards at the end of next week.
The governor said Monday that he would move into “phase one” of reopening the state’s economy on May 15, assuming new hospitalizations and daily death counts remained flat or declined. (That data was not provided by the state Wednesday because of a technical issue.)
“This is a floor,” Northam said of the statewide rules. “If local governments . . . think they need to maintain additional [protections], we will allow that.”
He pointed to densely populated Northern Virginia and the Eastern Shore, currently struggling with outbreaks at poultry processing plants, as communities that might not want to ease restrictions. Though Northam said he would work closely with localities, and has scheduled a teleconference Thursday with leaders in Northern Virginia, the governor told reporters he would make the final decision on all restrictions.
Northam said he had kept Bowser and Hogan updated on his plans. The governor noted that the District and Maryland are “very dense,” unlike many parts of the commonwealth outside of Northern Virginia.
From inside the briefing room, Northam could hear “Reopen Virginia” demonstrators honking car horns as they circled Capitol Square in Richmond. His announcement Monday that he intends to start easing business and social restrictions hadn’t dissuaded the activists from protesting again.
Asked whether he had a message for them, Northam ignored the prompt, instead praising the National Guard, nurses, teachers and others who “are stepping up every day to be part of the solution to get this health crisis behind us.”
Vozzella reported from Richmond. Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.