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Hogan’s decision to reopen Maryland surprised local officials, business leaders

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan speaks during a news conference in Annapolis, Md. (Brian Witte/AP)
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Maryland’s swift and far-reaching plan to reopen businesses and public venues took many key stakeholders by surprise, interviews with officials, business and health leaders show, and went further than some industry representatives had requested.

Aides to Gov. Larry Hogan (R) declined to answer questions Wednesday about whom the governor consulted before announcing he would lift restrictions on restaurants, bars, gyms and other businesses that had been in place for nearly a year.

Outside public health experts described the decision to reopen Friday at 5 p.m. as “premature” given the state’s coronavirus metrics. Hogan’s order Tuesday also revoked local-level restrictions, leaving county leaders scrambling to decide whether and how to reimpose stricter rules in the face of plateauing coronavirus cases and widening spread of concerning variants.

Leaders of Maryland’s eight largest jurisdictions met by phone Wednesday afternoon to discuss their options.

“I thought he would have waited until at least the quantity of vaccines was increased,” said Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D). He announced Wednesday that his county would adopt most of the rollback. But he cautioned the public not to interpret the relaxation as a message the pandemic is over.

“The greatest threat to falling behind and having another spike is public perception that because everything is at 100 percent capacity we can change our behavior,” he said.

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When announcing the first complete reopening in the greater Washington region, Hogan justified the decision by saying Maryland had surpassed the milestone of 1 million vaccinated residents and had seen weeks of declining cases statewide — particularly in hard-hit nursing homes.

Businesses may reopen at full capacity, according to the new guidelines, but every public space remains subject to the state’s masking order and indoor social distancing requirements. Large venues such as stadiums, concert halls and wedding venues will be limited to 50 percent capacity.

Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said the decision represented “a balanced approach” that keeps “in place the most important and effective mitigation tools, including masking and distancing. Every day in the pandemic, you’ll find some experts who are for what you’re doing, some who are against. Some will say you’re going too fast, some will say you’re going too slow.”

Ricci noted a May recommendation from the World Health Organization that supported a full reopening after the percentage of positive coronavirus tests is below 5 percent for two weeks. Maryland has been beneath that threshold for four weeks. Robert Redfield, the former U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director under the Trump administration who has been advising the Hogan administration, publicly endorsed the plan.

But outside medical experts cautioned that Maryland’s numbers are still about as high as they were this fall, significantly above the low point of early summer.

“I understand there’s pressure on the governor to start reopening things, but let’s reflect on where we are at right now,” said Boris Lushniak, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Health. “I’ll acknowledge that we’re heading in the right direction, but I’m also fearful we’re doing this prematurely.”

At least one physician on Hogan’s reopening task force, made up of doctors and business executives, said through a spokesman that he was not consulted on the decision. Another member did not respond to a request for comment.

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The rollbacks also took the state’s retail, restaurant industry and small-business organizations by surprise — not just the timing of the announcement but also the scope.

The Restaurant Association of Maryland had in recent weeks been lobbying Hogan to ease certain restrictions around indoor dining, but had not asked him to lift capacity limits entirely. The group, which represents hundreds of restaurants across the state, thought the cap would be raised, not eliminated.

“We were pleasantly surprised,” said Marshall Weston, the group’s president. “We were not made aware ahead of time . . . But we’re thankful.”

Mike O’Halloran, the state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said he and the nearly 4,000 small businesses the group represents were caught off guard by Hogan’s decision. His group participates in weekly calls with various state agencies to discuss supply chain issues and other concerns, but he said members “weren’t aware that this was even under consideration.”

While small businesses are elated, O’Halloran said, the decision “sets off a scramble” for small businesses that need to rehire staff while figuring out which local elected officials willfollow the state’s lead.

“We’re thrilled,” said Cailey Locklair, president of the Maryland Retailers Association, whose members had been hoping for changes after contact-tracing showed little transmission in retail settings and other states began lifting restrictions.

At the same time, she added, “there’s a good bit of confusion-slash-waiting right now around the county governments.”

Cities and counties that want to maintain some restrictions probably will have to reissue those orders, officials from four different jurisdictions said in interviews. Restrictions in some places might require emergency permission from county councils.

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Spokespeople for Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott (D) and the executives of Montgomery, Baltimore, Prince George’s and Howard counties declined to be interviewed but said they would make decisions about restrictions in coming days.

Ricci, Hogan’s spokesman, said in an email that requiring local governments to reissue these orders means “we are providing more clarity and transparency by ensuring that local actions are based on local authorities.”

While several Democratic-led counties, which tend to be Maryland’s most populous and hardest-hit by the virus, were considering ways to keep some restrictions in place, some Republican-led jurisdictions were eager to let them go.

“It was refreshing news to me,” said Paul Clayton Edwards (R), chair of the Garrett County Board of Commissioners, whose county in Western Maryland largely escaped the worst of the pandemic before being pummeled in the fall.

“We are in a good spot right now in Garrett County, knock on wood,” Edwards said. “These are smaller steps to get back to normal.”

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Harford County Executive Barry Glassman (R) said he was not aware of the governor’s decision before his announcement but “anticipated it once vaccines picked up.”

“I figured something like this would come fairly soon but I had no indication it was coming this quickly,” he said.

Glassman said the thinks Hogan’s order strikes a “good balance,” allowing businesses to fully open while keeping the masks and social distancing requirements in place.

“We’re going to go with the state guidance and open as much as the executive order will allow,” he said.

Bob Atlas, president of the Maryland Hospital Association, declined to take a position on Hogan’s announcement, other than to say he was relieved to hear the mask mandate would remain in place.

Atlas noted that hospitalizations have been declining in recent weeks but are still much higher than over the summer. And he said that declines in Maryland have plateaued in recent days, possibly reflecting national trends.

“It’s important for people to recognize that covid is not gone,” he said. “We would all like to be optimistic, but we have to be cautious with that optimism.”

The reopening decision could increase pressure on the state’s largest school systems to speed their reopening plans, as frustrated parents watch businesses, restaurants and houses of worship operate at or near full capacity.

But Prince George’s County said Wednesday that it will not modify its decision to reopen in April with a hybrid approach that will bring most students to campus two days a week. Montgomery County, which started bringing back small groups of students this month, could discuss Hogan’s order at a Board of Education meeting Thursday.

When Hogan imposed a broad “stay-at-home” order last March, in concert with D.C. and Virginia, the state was reporting just under 200 new coronavirus cases a day.

As of Wednesday, the state’s daily case rate was about quadruple that number, with a seven-day average of 800 new infections — although a growing percentage of the state’s elderly, who are most vulnerable to severe cases of covid-19, have been vaccinated.

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On June 5, 2020, the day that Hogan started reopening businesses with certain restrictions, Maryland’s seven-day average in new cases was hovering below 900. It fell below 400 later that month, then began to increase steadily through the fall before spiking in the winter.

Hogan’s order comes amid a wave of reopening measures across the country that also have divided elected officials and public health experts.

On Wednesday, restaurants and other businesses in Texas reopened with no capacity limits or mask requirements. Both Mississippi and Texas have lifted the majority of their pandemic precautions, sparking sharp rebuke from President Biden.

Democratic governors have not gone as far, but several have also rolled back restrictions significantly. Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) last week lifted capacity limits on restaurants and most businesses, citing a similar order in neighboring Massachusetts.

According to state data, Maryland has had an average case rate of about 13 cases per 100,000 residents over the past seven days, ranking around the middle of all 50 states.

It is doing better than Connecticut, Massachusetts and Texas, but worse than California, where fairly stringent pandemic restrictions are still in place, including a 25 percent cap on indoor dining in many major counties.

Maryland’s daily case rate is also nearly double that of Oregon’s, where indoor dining was allowed to resume at 25 percent in February.

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