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Citing new pandemic data, Prince George’s bans large house parties

Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks during a press conference April 22, 2020 in Laurel. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks during a press conference April 22, 2020 in Laurel. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Large house parties will be banned in Prince George’s County under a new order issued Thursday, as counties increasingly scour contact testing data to glean insights about COVID-19 infections.

Prince George’s County became the first county this week to take new and additional actions to stem the spread of the virus following a briefing Wednesday with Gov. Larry Hogan.

Baltimore city and Montgomery County leaders said they were also growing concerned with changes in key statistics. While none were ready to reimpose restrictions eased in the last month, all said they continue to review data in their jurisdictions and consider if restrictions are needed.

Prince George’s officials said a number of key metrics, including new positive tests and increased hospitalizations, are not enough to trigger closures. Instead, contact tracing is suggesting a commonality among new positive cases, with 67% reporting having attended a large house party or family gathering.

“COVID is still in our communities and it is still spreading,” she said.

Alsobrooks said her executive order will ban “large gatherings” of more than 100 people with physical distaning and facial covering requirements. Violators — property owners, promoters and guests — can each be subject to a misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine and one year in jail.

Alsobrooks said the order follows not only contact tracing data linking new cases to parties but the report last week of hundreds of people attending a ticketed pool party at the Upper Marlboro estate and mansion of former state Sen. Tommy Broadwater.

“There’s one in every crowd,” said Alsobrooks.

Broadwater told a Washington television station that he owns the property and rents it out for parties.

Not any more, said Alsobrooks.

“We’ve taken action to make sure we are closing down the parties taking place at the Broadwater mansion,” she said.

The county executive said police officers responded to the property last week and attempted to disperse the crowd but were met with abuse and cursing from those in attendance.

It’s difficult to disperse a crowd of hundreds of people safely. So, the better thing to do is make sure they never convene in the first place,” said Alsobrooks, adding that she had not been in contact with the former state senator or given him special treatment..

“It doesn’t matter who owns it,” she said. “If it’s Tommy Broadwater or some other person, any establishment like that that convenes in an unsafe fashion like that will be shut down.

“We don’t care whose property it is,” she said.

Alsobrooks’ announcement comes one day after Hogan released similar data related to public and family gatherings.

Contact tracing reports suggest that businesses in Prince George’s County are not driving the spread of the virus.

“The businesses in our community have done their level best,” said Alsobrooks.

In Prince George’s, officials are ramping up enforcement with a team of 80 employees who conduct unannounced visits to businesses to ensure owners and customers are abiding by county and state orders.

First-time violators receive a warning and educational materials. A second violation results in a $1,000 fine. Third violations result in the county shutting down the business until officials approve a plan from the owner to operate according to orders.

“We are dead serious about this,” said Alsobrooks.

Alsobrooks said no businesses have been fined, but an unnamed martial arts studio that works with children was shut down for violations.

Other jurisdictions are also watching increases in numbers both within their own jurisdictions but in their neighbors and considering if additional measures are needed.

Baltimore city continues to see increases in hospitalizations as well as a positivity rate that is not only above the recommended 5% but higher than the state average. The transmission rate — a measure of how many people are infected by a person who has tested positive — is also of concern.

“These are all significant increases that are not merely the result of an increase in testing,” said Baltimore City Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa.

Last week the city imposed additional outdoor mask requirements for anyone over the age of 2. Restaurants and bars that serve food were also ordered to discontinue indoor service, an order that will be reevaluated in early August. Dzirasa said all of the decisions were necessitated by increases in key measurements.

“A week later, the data continues to show the same alarming trends,” she said.

The city is “seeing the early signs of a new surge of cases” at the same time businesses and individuals in the city are looking for ways around the new face covering orders.

Similarly, Montgomery County, which has had the second-most cases in the state behind Prince George’s County, said it is growing concerned about a resurgence.

The county is not yet ready to reimpose restrictions but said it is constantly evaluating that position.

“I’d say we’re to a point where we have to say, ‘Do we need to tighten some things up?” said Montgomery County Health Officer Travis Gayles.

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