ANNAPOLIS — A continued decline in key COVID-19 statistics is clearing the way for Maryland to enter the second stage of Gov. Larry Hogan’s recovery plan.
Hogan made his announcement that will allow more businesses to open Friday even as he and state health officials warn of potential increases in cases. One state health official cautioned lawmakers that Maryland could see a second wave by late summer with third and fourth waves to follow.
Still, Hogan said, Maryland is ready to ease more restrictions based on lower virus-related hospitalizations, acute and intensive care cases and a positive rate — the percentage of positive tests over a rolling seven day period — of 9.5 percent.
“I also want to continue to remind the people of Maryland that moving into stage two does not mean the crisis is behind us or that we can afford to stop being vigilant and cautious,” said Hogan.
Starting at 5 p.m. on Friday, the state will lift restrictions allowing more non-essential businesses to open, including nail and tanning salons and massage and tattoo parlors, which may operate at 50% capacity and by appointment.
The governor also announced that the state Motor Vehicle Administration and other “customer-facing agencies” will begin to open some branches by appointment only. Transit schedules will also move toward more normal schedules, and the Department of Education can continue with its plan to open more child care facilities as more workers return to their offices.
Hogan encouraged those who can work from home to continue to do so. Face coverings and social distancing are also recommended.
Under the plan, counties will be allowed to decide on their own whether to match lifting the restrictions that Hogan announced.
Hogan did not ease restrictions on the number of people who could gather, leaving it at 10 or less. Still, Hogan acknowledged, “no one was following” the mandate.
Friday marks the 90th day since the first three cases of COVID-19 were announced in the state.
Since then, 54,982 cases have been recorded in Maryland along with 2,519 deaths as of June 3.
In recent weeks, however, the state has seen the number of hospitalizations, acute and intensive care cases and the positive rates from testing decline.
Even so, Hogan and his team of public health officials at the state Department of Health warned that additional waves of the virus are expected.
“We’re going to watch it very closely,” said Hogan. “All the experts have said we’ve dampened the curve, we’ve flattened the curve but the virus is still there and it’s still out there. Until we get a vaccine we’re going to have to be vigilant. We can’t guarantee that a spike won’t happen and multiple times.”
Those waves are concerning to health officials who say they will now have to carefully watch the numbers as hospitals around the state begin using beds for elective procedures, thus reducing the number available for COVID-19 patients.
“The challenge and the reason we’re spending some much time on this is that there could be second, third and fourth waves,” Dennis Schrader, chief operating officer at the Maryland Department of Health, told members of the General Assembly’s Joint COVID-19 work group Wednesday morning. “We want to make sure you understand what has come because we’re shifting gears here.”
Schrader said a “second larger surge” could come “late summer or sometime in the fall.”
Dr. Thomas Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and a member of a panel advising Hogan, praised the governor for the cautious and deliberate implementation of his reopening plan but warned that spikes could cause the state to move slower and possibly even reinstate some restrictions.
“I think the harder decisions are coming,” said Inglesby, speaking of moves to reopen entertainment venues, theaters and restaurants, public schools and universities.
Inglesby said spikes in cases and hospitalizations could come two to six weeks after changes in restrictions are made.
“We do need to be prepared to pause on the reopening process if things move in the wrong direction,” he said. “If the hospital indicators in particular move dangerously in the wrong direction it might be that we need even to reverse some of the decisions if that is the only available tool that we have at that time. Hopefully we won’t get there. I know no one wants to reverse anything.”