ANNAPOLIS — Bars and restaurants will have to operate at a lower capacity as part of a series of orders and health advisories issued Tuesday by Gov. Larry Hogan.
Hogan made the announcements during his second press briefing in five days as local leaders and public health experts are pressing for more statewide action to control the virus. State officials are also warning that this spike could last months, possibly into the coming year.
“We cannot afford to ignore these trends and patterns,” said Hogan. “Last week I said that the warning lights were starting to blink on the dashboard and it appeared we were approaching a critical turning point in the fight. Today I’m reporting that we have now crossed over into the danger zone.”
While some key measurements remain below peaks seen in the spring, others are rising at rates that are causing concern.
“Too many residents and businesses have covid fatigue and they’ve begun letting their guard down,” said Hogan. “Too many Marylanders are traveling out of state to unsafe locations, hosting large gatherings, crowding in bars, attending house parties and refusing to wear masks. Too many businesses are failing to comply with state regulations and orders and counties, with the primary responsibility for ensuring compliance of the law and enforcing the health regulations are in some cases failing to do so. Sadly as a result, the virus has returned to our state in a big way.”
Dr. Theodore R. Delbridge, executive director of the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, said current increases in cases could continue for the rest of the year.
“When we look at the modeling, we’re concerned that December, January and February are going to be the peak times,” said Delbridge. “So much is dependent on the mitigating steps that the public takes such as wearing a mask and keeping distance.”
In addition to lower operating capacities for bars and restaurants, Hogan also announced the departure of Health Secretary Robert “Bobby” Neall.
“He gave us notice and announced to the cabinet that he will be leaving the administration, retiring on Dec. 1,” Hogan declined to provide further details on who would take Neall’s place.
Some in Annapolis said Dennis Schrader, the chief operating officer of the department, could potentially be in line for the position. Schrader was acting secretary of the department until Hogan withdrew his name in a bitter back and forth with the Senate that ultimately landed in the Maryland Court of Appeals.
Hogan’s announcement of new restrictions and advisories Tuesday represents a departure from the governor’s phased approach used to reopen the state over the summer. When first rolled out, Hogan said the plan would be to move back and forth between phases as infections rise and fall in the state.
“We do not want to take actions that will further burden our struggling small businesses or actions to shut down our economy,” said Hogan. “Our primary goals continue to be keeping our hospitals from overflowing and stopping more Marylanders from dying.”
The governor’s order, effective Wednesday at 5 p.m., lowers the seating capacity for all bars and restaurants from 75% to 50%. Masks, social distancing and disinfecting requirements will remain in place. Additionally, Hogan reminded bar operators that customers are to be served only while seated.
The governor and the Department of Health also announced a number of advisories including:
- The state recommends strongly against having indoor gatherings of 25 or more people. The recommendation does not affect rules governing religious gatherings.
- Orders putting into motion hospital surge plans that include moving some patients to field hospitals in the Baltimore City Convention Center, Laurel Medical Center and Takoma Park.
- Marylanders are strongly advised against non-essential travel to any state with a positivity rate above 10% or an average case rate of 20 cases per 100,000.
- All state employees who are approved for it must telework.
- All employers in the state are advised to limit on-premises staff and allow telework when possible.
“We think these are the targeted actions that we need to take right now, today, based on the data from where we’re seeing the infections and what our contact tracing is telling us that these are the things that are going to have the biggest impact,” said Hogan. “But as I said, this doesn’t mean that this is the end. We’re going to continue to take actions if need be everyday until we get this figured out.”
Hogan said some decisions to issue advisories rather than orders were made because of the difficulty in enforcement.
The governor again called out local leaders for not doing more to enforce the laws in their jurisdictions.
“Many of the counties are doing their best but it’s becoming more and more lax,” said Hogan. “People may have forgotten that the rules are in place, or they don’t think it’s important anymore, or they think that we’re safe now because our numbers are doing so much better than the rest of the country that it was over.”
Hogan said local officials need to crack down.
“A lot of people are not following those rules and the county liquor inspectors, who are in there anyway doing other things, and the local health departments and the local law enforcement, they provide licenses to these businesses, they’ve got to start dropping the hammer on them because that’s where a lot of the spread is taking place.”
In recent weeks leading up to the increases, Hogan expressed reluctance to impose widespread closures of businesses as happened in the spring.
“We’re trying to keep people employed, we’re trying to keep small businesses from failing and going under but we’re also trying to keep people alive,” said Hogan. “That’s the delicate balance.”
The governor sidestepped questions about whether or not he would ever get to that point but in other comments seemed to be putting business owners on notice.
On Tuesday, the state announced another 1,338 new infections in 24 hours, the seventh consecutive day for 1,000 or more new infections. It’s also second straight day the state has set a record for 1,000 or more daily cases after tying the previous record on Sunday.
The state’s rolling seven-day average for new infections is now at nearly 1,278 per day. The rate is a new high for the pandemic and more than 48% higher than Nov. 3 and nearly 79% higher than on Oct. 27.
Total hospitalizations are up 54 patients in 24 hours to 761, the most since June 13. Overall hospitalizations remain below the peak rate of the pandemic, 1,711 on April 30.
Acute patients are at 585, the most since June 8. This is below the peak of 1,121 on April 30. Intensive care patients increased to 176, the most since June 27, but below the peak of 611 on May 10.
The new infections per 100,000 population took another large jump in the last 24 hours to 19.79. Eighteen counties are over 10 per 100,000. The rate of nearly 20 is the highest ever during the pandemic and represents the third consecutive day the state has set a new high in this category.
The infection rate is also up to 1.18. Below 1 is considered a level at which the virus is not easily spreading. Maryland was last at 1.18 on July 12-15. The peak rate was 2.06 on March 6, according to COVIDActNow.org.
Deaths, a lagging indicator, increased by 12 to 4,084.
Tom Inglesby, director of Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and a member of Gov. Larry Hogan’s advisory panel on the coronavirus, called for a unified national response by governors across the country. In a series of messages on Twitter Sunday, Inglesby called for limiting all indoor gatherings to less than 10 people. He also called for suspension of large outdoor gatherings as well as the closure of some businesses.
“Where virus is surging, and that’s a lot of the US now, bars should be closed, restaurants limited to outdoor seating and take out,” Inglesby wrote. “Provide economic assistance programs to help owners of those businesses. That’s the deal we owe them as they close in order to help all of us.”