ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s economy and social life could begin to slowly resume under a three-stage plan outlined Friday by Gov. Larry Hogan.
The announcement was the first sign that the state is nearing a gradual resumption of life in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic that so far has claimed more than 700 lives and disrupted businesses and regular life. The plan, however contains no concrete timeline for a start that could be two or more weeks away.
“I want to do it today,” said Hogan. “We are hopeful because we are starting to see some plateauing and numbers starting to round off. We haven’t seen those spikes we’ve seen in other places. That’s encouraging, but they’re not where they need to be. This is guess work, too, a little bit. We’re hopeful that those numbers are going to get better and continue.”
The governor added that he hopes Maryland is three days into a downward trend that would allow the state to move to phase one of his reopening plan, but he cautioned it’s not an exact science.
“It looks like a pattern but the doctors say — and they’re a lot smarter than me — three days don’t make a trend,” said Hogan. “And I’m saying: Why not?”
ReOpen Maryland, an group that organized an April 18 protest in Annapolis said the plan from Hogan lacks transparency and the voices of those who are most affected having not drawn paychecks in weeks.
“We agree with the governor on one key point: as he mentioned, ‘This is guesswork,'” the group said in a statement. “Destroying a state’s economy, restricting civil liberties, and straining families’ emotional well-being requires a far higher level of certainty than ‘guesswork.’ It is time for the governor and his team—all of whom are presumably still receiving their salaries—to consider the emerging research calling into question the expected fatality rate of this virus, to share their modeling and projections including confidence intervals and errors to date, and to transparently disclose the way that they are gathering and utilizing data. Reopen Maryland shared these requests in a public press release on April 22 and has yet to receive a response from the governor.”
Maryland has been under a state of emergency since March 5. All but essential businesses have been shuttered for more than a month.
The effect has successfully mitigated the spread of the COVID-19 virus, state health experts say. The cost, however, has been great as more than 340,000 residents so far have applied for unemployment in a five-week span. A new state website that went live Friday to accept new claims crashed within the first hour it went live.
“I’m one of the people that is very frustrated,” said Hogan. “I share their frustration, and I’m sorry people had difficulties with that (filing online). It is now fixed and I’m happy about that.”
The plan Hogan proposed Friday takes from others, including federal guidelines provided to the state a week ago as well as plans from the National Governors Association — which Hogan chairs — the American Enterprise Institute, and Johns Hopkins.
The governor has been under pressure from some protesters and members of his own party who want to reopen businesses and even allow rural areas of the county that are not as severely affected to reopen more quickly.
“We’ll be making those decisions as we move forward into phase one,” said Hogan, speaking of possibly easing restrictions in rural areas more quickly. “It’s certainly one of the things we’re going to consider, and it’s one of the things I think is possible, but we also want to do that in a safe way.”
Under Hogan’s plan, Maryland could enter phase one once the state has shown a downward trend in key numbers, including hospitalized patients and those in intensive care beds. Business and other activity would be allowed to resume slowly based on risk.
“Outdoors will be safer than indoors,” said Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and a key adviser to Hogan on the response to the pandemic. “Less social interactions will be better than more social interactions. And closer contact and high density will be higher risk than low density.”
Inglesby said employers should be considering their individual risks now and planning to mitigate them before reopening.
Under phase one, Maryland would see a lifting of the governor’s stay-at-home order. Some small businesses and outdoor activities, including boating could resume. Elective surgeries would also be allowed to resume.
“We all want the state to reopen as quickly as we can, but it’s clear that if we open today we would risk a fast acceleration of the epidemic to very high numbers,” said Inglesby.
Hogan said he hoped Maryland could enter the first stage by early May. Hogan called early May “hopeful.”
“I’m still hoping to do that,” said Hogan. “I’m going to press to do that.”
In phase two, the limit on the number of people allowed to gather would be increased — though it was not immediately defined — and bars and restaurants would be opened with safety restrictions in place. Non-essential teleworkers who cannot work remotely would be allowed to return to their jobs.
In phase three, larger gatherings would be permitted, and high-capacity bars and restaurants would be reopened. Hospital restrictions would be loosened, and family visits to nursing homes could resume as could larger religious gatherings.
Schools, which are closed until May 15, are not specifically mentioned in the plan. A spokesman for the governor said any reopening isn’t tied to one particular phase but will be done in consultation with Maryland Schools Superintendent Karen Salmon.
In each phase, the state would have to see a 14-day decline in statistics in order to move to the next.
“The later phases take a longer period of time,” said Hogan. “Phase two lasts a lot longer than phase one does.”
Small upticks in the numbers will not automatically reset the clock.
“One little day of deviation and I’m not going to say we’re resetting the clock,” said Hogan. “It’s what does the trend look like for a period of time.”
Hogan has also appointed a coronavirus recovery team led by Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford and other state business leaders as well as 15 advisory groups that will help guide his decisions in reopening.
During each of those phases, Hogan and Ingelsby said, telecommuting for work would be encouraged. Social distancing and continued use of masks is also likely. A return to pre-pandemic life is not likely.
“Unfortunately, this virus is going to be in our state and in our country until we have a vaccine and our population gets immunity,” said Inglesby. “So even when the state does begin to reopen it will be critical for the public to know its own individual efforts will still be very important.
“Taken together all of our collective actions and decisions will either slow this virus down or they will speed up the spread. So we’re going to need to keep wearing cloth masks in public. We’re going to keep our physical space of six feet or more and we’re going to need to telecommute when we can and it doesn’t interrupt business operations. All these things will make a big difference when we add them together collectively.”