Leaders have cited improving metrics in deciding to gradually lift restrictions. While many key numbers continue to trend downward, Luisa Franzini, chairwoman of the health policy and management department at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, said it’s a worrying sign that caseload numbers aren’t dropping.
“You would hope that they would keep decreasing, but they’re not,” Franzini said. “As more businesses have reopened, people are going out more. People are moving around more. They’re doing less social distancing.”
Franzini, who is part of a group working on coronavirus projections for several Maryland counties, said experts hope that as more businesses reopen, the region won’t see a caseload increase similar to some Southern and Western states that reopened more quickly.
While cases have been steady, the seven-day average of hospitalizations in the District, Maryland and Virginia has been steadily declining. The rate of daily virus-related deaths is also falling, dropping to an average near 30 after a peak of 96 in early May.
As coronavirus metrics generally trend in a positive direction, Prince George’s County is the latest jurisdiction in the Washington region to lift more restrictions.
The county entered a modified Phase 2 reopening two weeks ago, but County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) said last week that increased testing and drops in deaths and hospitalizations would allow it to move to a full Phase 2 reopening at 5 p.m. Monday.
The move permits recreational establishments, including casinos, bowling alleys and miniature golf facilities, to reopen at half capacity, while amusement parks can reopen at 40 percent capacity. Shopping malls can open at half capacity, and gyms and other indoor physical activities may resume operations, also with capacity restrictions.
Child-care facilities, previously open only for the children of essential workers, may reopen for all children. Employees must use masks and gloves, and there must be a schedule for staggered drop-offs and pickups.
Still, many business and county departments are taking a cautious approach.
The county’s Department of Parks and Recreation is waiting until Wednesday to open its outdoor pools and playgrounds while it finalizes plans. Signs will be posted at playgrounds cautioning families that the county won’t regularly clean high-touch surfaces.
Department director Bill Tyler said families will be asked to wipe down swings and handle bars, adding that the onus is on parents to ensure a safe opening. Recreation centers and park carousels won’t open yet, even though that is allowed under Phase 2.
“We’d rather take our time and get it right, so we can make sure everyone, including our staff, is safe,” Tyler said.
At public pools, lifeguards will be tasked with ensuring social distancing by swimmers, who will see markings in the pool and in lounging areas similar to those in grocery stores. Swimmers must sign up for two-hour slots, with no more than 50 people in the pool at a time. Tyler said staff members will sanitize high-touch areas and bathrooms before letting the next group of swimmers in 45 minutes later.
At Massage Envy in Hyattsville, employees were required to complete training in infection control and wear masks while performing services. At Gold’s Gym in Capitol Heights, Brian Griffin, the general manager, said people stopped by throughout the day to see if it had opened.
“People are already coming in and excited to get back to their fitness routine,” Griffin said. “Our gym is a community, and I’m excited to see all our members.”
Griffin called the pandemic-related changes at Gold’s a “smart makeover,” including removing every other cardio machine, creating an extra outdoor space to work out and installing a new air filtration system.
Churches are taking similar measures to allow members to return as safely as possible.
At Prince George’s Church of Christ in Landover, minister Bruce McClure bought a new air filtration system and is requiring everyone inside to wear a mask. Although he is allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity — which would be 150 people in his church — he will allow 100 members inside for worship this Sunday and will broadcast to more in the parking lot.
“Just because a law allows something doesn’t mean you go to the maximum edge of that,” McClure said. “The virus has gone nowhere. The numbers are down in P.G. County, but that’s strictly because people are doing the precautionary things.”
McClure’s church has gradually opened its Sunday worship in the past two weeks, first only allowing clergy and then their families. This will be the first Sunday that it allows worshipers to enter the building.
“There’s an anticipation of people wanting to be in the company of each other together,” he said. “There’s a starvation of camaraderie.”
The Shops at Iverson in Hillcrest Heights opened Monday for the first time since March, while others such as the Mall at Prince George’s will open Tuesday. Shoppers were lined up 30 minutes before the doors opened and mostly came looking for normalcy, rather than to shop for a specific item.
Ernie Westbrooks of Southeast Washington said it would be safe enough at 50 percent capacity to get what he needed as quickly as possible — even as he worried that not everyone would take the necessary precautions.
“Everybody’s got cabin fever. Everybody’s ready to shop and get out,” Westbrooks said. “I’m still worried about catching it, but I want to just go back to regular life.”
Bunny Long of Temple Hills said she came to browse and was ready to get out of the house and see other people. She arrived 15 minutes before the mall opened to be one of the first customers inside.
“I haven’t been in a store since February, so I’m just anxious to get out,” she said.
Shop owners said they hoped to recoup revenue lost during the months-long closure.
Pat Venable Turner and Channing Wran bought La Moda, a retro fashion store, last week from an owner who struggled to stay afloat as the store sat empty. To generate interest and quick revenue on the first day of reopening, Turner allowed only customers who prepaid $500 before entering.
Prince George’s, which was devastated by the novel coronavirus and continues to lead Maryland in new infections, had initially joined Montgomery County in holding back from Phase 2 reopening plans that Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced earlier this month.
The District, meanwhile, entered Phase 2 on June 22, the final Washington-area jurisdiction to make the move.
In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) will move the state, including the Washington suburbs, into Phase 3 on Wednesday.
The third phase will allow child-care centers to reopen and raise the cap on large social gatherings to 250. Restaurants and nonessential retail businesses will be able to operate at full capacity, with physical distancing measures.
Swimming pools, indoor gyms and fitness centers will be allowed to operate at 75 percent capacity. Barbershops and hair salons will be allowed to take walk-ins, but with masks and distancing required.
Entertainment venues, including museums and zoos and the like, will be permitted to open at 50 percent capacity, with a cap of 1,000 people at outdoor venues. People still must wear masks in indoor public spaces.
Health departments in the District, Maryland and Virginia on Monday reported 974 new coronavirus cases, bringing the region’s total to 139,735. The three jurisdictions also added 16 new fatalities — the second-lowest daily death toll since early April — putting the total at 5,466.
The District reported 44 new cases and one death. Virginia had 453 new cases while reporting eight new deaths, while Maryland had 477 new cases and seven deaths.
Improvements in coronavirus metrics prompted Arlington National Cemetery on Monday to increase the number of people allowed at funerals from 10 to 50. Officials said face coverings and social distancing measures are still required. The cemetery is closed to the public.
In Maryland, Hogan and Superintendent of Schools Karen B. Salmon announced $210 million to help schools and students most affected by the pandemic. The money, allocated through the federal Cares Act, will be used to increase access to remote learning and tutoring services for at-risk kids.
Hogan cited a new low in the state’s virus positivity rate, at 4.7 percent, in saying Maryland’s metrics continue to trend in a positive direction.
“We are seeing rapidly rising case numbers in states all across the country,” he said in a Twitter message. “It is vital that Marylanders remain vigilant, wear face coverings, wash their hands, and practice physical distancing so that we can continue on our road to recovery.”