Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said Wednesday that the state’s largest jurisdiction will probably enter its next phase of reopening next week — a timeline he said was “in the same ballpark” as the District and Prince George’s County, neither of which has made an announcement — but Elrich did not provide a date.
Northern Virginia will enter Phase 2 on Friday, joining other parts of the state.
Even as business and recreation activity begins to resume, health directors throughout the region warned residents and officials to not go too far too fast. Recent demonstrations in the District and its suburbs against police brutality have worried health officials who say the virus can spread in closely packed crowds.
Hogan has empowered local leaders to open more slowly, and hard-hit jurisdictions — including Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — have chosen to do so in the past. Montgomery County leaders said Wednesday that they don’t plan to alter the county’s Phase 2 plans based on the governor’s announcement.
Montgomery Health Officer Travis Gayles, in a briefing for lawmakers Tuesday, said that while the county’s covid-19 metrics are trending downward, he did not want to give residents a “false sense of assurance.” He added, “What we’re looking for is sustained improvements.”
Fran Phillips, Maryland’s deputy health secretary, said Wednesday that despite the lifting of restrictions, the virus hasn’t changed. It is still contagious and deadly, and it still takes days for symptoms to appear.
“Nothing is zero-risk, and so we need to be prudent,” she said. “Just because it’s open doesn’t mean you have to participate.”
Starting at 5 p.m. Friday, Maryland will lift restrictions on indoor dining and outdoor amusement activities. “In order to help summer be summer,” Hogan said, pools can increase capacity, while miniature golf courses, amusement parks and go-cart tracks can open.
Other businesses and buildings can reopen a week later, on June 19. Gyms, dance and martial arts facilities, and other fitness centers must first undergo a deep cleaning. High school sports teams can launch outdoor practices, and outdoor pools can increase capacity from 25 percent to 50 percent. Other recreation facilities, libraries and theaters will remain closed.
Day cares can also reopen if they limit groups to 15 children or fewer and follow other social distancing guidance. A Hogan spokeswoman said a state order that limited gatherings to 10 people has also been lifted, effective immediately.
Karen Salmon, Maryland’s superintendent of schools, said small groups of students can return to classrooms for summer school, but she encouraged school districts to focus on students in most need of in-person instruction.
Nothing will be open under pre-pandemic conditions, with requirements for masks and crowd limits.
The governor said widespread testing will remain critical as more people return to work and in the fall, when a second wave of infection could hit.
“The virus is still out there, and this battle is not over,” Hogan said. But he said an economic crisis remains in full swing, and he is pushing to reopen commerce as soon as safely possible.
Hogan said that indoor dining is a “personal choice” and that as a cancer survivor who is particularly vulnerable to the virus, he would not take the risk. “I would not feel comfortable dining inside, and if I were going to a restaurant, I would sit outside,” he said.
The announcement follows a key milestone in the hospitalization data watched by Hogan and his advisers, who are monitoring the scope of infections and the state’s ability to treat those who become sick. The number of patients this week hospitalized with covid-19, the disease the novel coronavirus causes, dropped below 1,000 in Maryland for the first time since April 10.
The rolling seven-day average of covid-19 cases in the District, Maryland and Virginia dropped to 1,468 on Wednesday, down from 2,217 cases to start the month, according to figures compiled from state and city health departments.
Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said Wednesday that key metrics — including case counts, hospitalizations and positivity test rates — have been “trending down” in the region.
“Taken together,” she said, “I see good signs and reasons to be hopeful.” She added, “All the measures we put in place to slow the transmission definitely had a positive impact.”
Still, she cautioned that as cities, counties and states reopen, some have been successful at keeping numbers low, while others “are having a tougher time.”
“If we all continue to prioritize social distancing and spending time in safer settings like outdoors, that will go a long way toward making reopening safer,” she said.
The District, Maryland and Virginia reported 1,063 new cases on Wednesday, bringing the total to 121,179. There were 55 new deaths, bringing the toll to 4,857.
In the District, there were 63 new cases and four new deaths. Maryland had 561 new cases and 33 new deaths. Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, which have been hit particularly hard with outbreaks, had 117 and 156 new cases, respectively. There were five new deaths in Montgomery and six in Prince George’s.
Virginia reported 439 new cases and 18 new deaths. Fairfax County, the state’s largest jurisdiction, reported 51 new cases and six new deaths.
Experts said that while many key metrics are trending in the right direction, they cautioned that outbreaks and increases are possible as restrictions continue to lift.
“There’s definitely evidence of improvement in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, but there’s also evidence of community transmission of the virus,” said Joshua Sharfstein, a former Maryland secretary of health who is a vice dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
In Northern Virginia, where more restrictions will lift Friday as the region moves into Phase 2, restaurateurs who have struggled to survive a dining-in shutdown were eager to reopen.
“Most restaurants need to get to 70 to 80 percent of pre-crisis sales,” said Scott Shaw of the eight-restaurant Alexandria Restaurant Partners. “Our forecast is, we return to a new normal in 12 months at 70 to 80 percent of pre-crisis levels. We’re down 30 to 80 percent now, depending on the restaurant.”
In Arlington County, Joe’s Place Pizza and Pasta manager Sammi Simaan said workers were ready to return to inside dining.
“We’re excited,” he said. “We’ve prepared with tables six feet apart, a safe guest waiting area, my team are all wearing masks and gloves. . . . A lot of my clients have been asking when we’re going to reopen”
Rivers, the Johns Hopkins epidemiologist, said access to testing has greatly improved throughout the Washington region. She noted progress in the positivity rate, which looks at the number of people who are tested and are positive for the virus.
Virginia, Maryland and the District all saw their positivity rates drop in the past week. Virginia’s rate dropped from 11.6 percent to 9 percent. The District’s dropped from 9.8 percent to 6.3 percent, while Maryland’s dropped from 10.4 percent to 7.2 percent.
“We have flattened the curve, and now we are staying flat or going down on the curve,” Rivers said.
She said experts are trying to better understand where and how people are contracting the virus through the use of contact tracing.
“Are people being infected at home, at work because they’re essential workers or because they popped into the store for a gallon of milk?” he asked.
In the District, Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt urged continued caution, particularly amid days of demonstrations.
“From a public health perspective, we still view these as mass gatherings that would not be advisable,” she said.
She asked that people who have attended protests try to practice stricter social distancing to avoid passing the virus to others if they contracted it.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) planned to get a coronavirus test Wednesday in the Anacostia neighborhood. She said she has been tested twice before but has been working in the proximity of other people and recently entered crowds of protesters. She said she does not have symptoms, adding, “I feel great.”
She said there was no evidence of virus transmission during protests in the city. The only event the District has identified as a “hot spot” that resulted in numerous cases of the virus was a church gathering early in the pandemic, she said Wednesday.
“If there was some other hot spot that was associated with the demonstrations, that would also be communicated to the public,” she said.
Rebecca Tan and Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report.