ANNAPOLIS — Maryland will enter phase three of its COVID-19 recovery plan to start the Labor Day weekend.
Gov. Larry Hogan announced Tuesday that key measurements of the state’s efforts to halt the coronavirus have continued to drop to levels that will allow additional easing of restrictions.
“We continue to be in much better shape than the nation and better than most state,s across the country,” said Hogan.
“I want to remind people that moving into stage three does not mean that this crisis is behind us and remind them that we must remain vigilant so that we can keep Maryland open for business,” the governor said.
Starting Friday at 5 p.m., all entertainment venues, including movie theaters and live entertainment venues, can reopen at up to 50% capacity or up to 100 people for indoor facilities. Outdoor facilities are limited to 50% capacity or up to 250 people. Mandatory social distancing and mask orders will remain in place.
Retail establishments and churches can now allow up to 75% capacity. Previously, the limit was 50%.
It is unclear if any jurisdictions will slow the reopening. Under Hogan’s executive orders, local governments can impose tighter restrictions than that state but cannot ease restrictions greater than the state allows.
“As movie theaters and live performance venues join other small businesses in reopening, and retailers increase their capacity, employers will turn their attention towards local leaders, hoping they will follow the standard set by the governor,” said Mike O’Halloran, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business. “The governor’s prior executive order giving control to local officials continues to muddy the waters on what business can and cannot do. A lot of obstacles remain, but we’re hoping this news means more small businesses can begin tackling those hardships.”
Hogan’s announcements again are a departure from his original phased-in approach announced earlier this year. The activities set to reopen this weekend are considered the most high-risk and were, under the original plan, to be off limits until the development of a safe and effective vaccine or treatment therapies.
“The plan has changed a lot since April when we put that out,” said Hogan. “It’s evolved. We’ve already opened a number of phase three things in phase two. We opened some phase two things in phase one, so it’s an evolving process.”
Hogan said the announcement is a slow move into phase three.
“We’re not opening at full capacity,” he said. “We’re going to see how it goes before we lift all the capacity restrictions.”
The governor last announced an easing of restrictions in June. He paused his reopening efforts on July 28, citing upticks in transmission rates in some areas of the state as well as concerns about an increase in the numbers of younger adults testing positive compared to older residents that led at least two jurisdictions to briefly reimpose restrictions on bars and restaurants.
Since then, key measurements that track the virus have continued to trend in a positive direction.
The rolling seven-day positivity rate in Maryland is 3.39% as of Aug. 31.
The CDC recommends that states remain under 5% for at least two weeks before easing restrictions.
Maryland has been under 5% for 68 days and under 4% for 24 days.
The state is also seeing continued declines in overall hospitalizations as well as among patients in intensive care. The new cases per 100,000 in population statewide is at 8.46, down from 15.55 on July 31.
Hogan announced that the state will collaborate with Apple and Google to use exposure notification applications.
The application is built into smartphone software. Once enabled by the user, the software runs in the background using Bluetooth to log contacts with other smartphone users who also have enabled the software. Users can then report through the app that they’ve had a positive test and the system notifies other users of potential exposures.
The names of those who report positive tests are not shared with those who are notified of their potential exposure.
Maryland, along with Nevada, Virginia and the District of Columbia, is among the first to adopt the Exposure Notification Express application, which does not require states to develop their own companion applications.
Hogan’s decision to further ease restrictions comes as Maryland and the nation head into a holiday weekend. In July, the state saw an uptick in cases following the Independence Day holiday, but the governor Tuesday cautioned residents against letting their guard down during family gatherings.
Contact tracing continues to show that since mid-July, 41% people who tested positive for the virus reported recently attending a family gathering. Another 19% reported attending a house party prior to testing positive.
“While we want everybody to enjoy the holiday weekend, we tend to feel safe when we’re around our family and friends, and in fact that’s when we let our guard down, and we don’t do the things that we do when we’re out in stores and out in places where we’re actually being careful and following all the advice,” said Hogan.