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Md. counties tighten COVID-19 restrictions; Hogan details $70M in aid

ANNAPOLIS — Local leaders, disappointed with what they say is a lack of a statewide approach to controlling the spread of the coronavirus, are imposing tighter restrictions to slow a new surge.

“I think all the county executives are trying now to get ourselves aligned,” said Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich. 

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman expressed disappointment in a lack of statewide action by Gov. Larry Hogan, saying his county and others in the central Maryland region will act independently from the state. 

“Without state action, we need to move regionally,” said Pittman.

Hogan in recent days has issued an order reducing restaurant and bar capacity from 75% to 50%. He has also issued a number of advisories warning against gatherings of more than 25 people and travel to states where the virus is surging again in the colder weather. 

But the advisories are not mandatory. Hogan has so far been reluctant to issue tougher orders as seen in the spring despite some measurements showing a resurgence of the disease to levels seen in May and June. Instead, Hogan has called on local governments to use their authority to impose stricter rules piecemeal rather than a statewide approach.

On Thursday, the governor reiterated that stand during a late afternoon news conference.

“We’re very comfortable with the decisions we’ve made statewide and we left the flexibility with the counties to make their own decisions,” said Hogan. “We’re going to continue to track the metrics and make decisions every day as we see fit.”

Hogan did not announce new restrictions despite his description of a virus that was widespread across the state.

Instead, the governor announced $70 million in additional aid from the federal CARES Act including:

  • $20 million to increase the state’s stock of personal protective equipment.
  • $15 million for the Department of Labor to hire additional call center operators, workers to adjudicate a backlog of claims as well as software for fraud detection.
  • $10 million for vaccination supplies in anticipation of a release of one or more COVID-19 vaccine candidates.
  • $10 million for Maryland food banks.
  • $2 million each for foster care providers and to increase the call center capacity at the Department of Human Services.
  • And $1 million for an innovative program that will test waste water in public housing and correctional facilities that will measure the level of coronavirus looking for early signs of virus spikes.

Pittman and other local government leaders, including Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, are expressing concern about a number of key measurements of the spread of the virus that are trending in dangerous directions including increases in hospitalizations in their respective counties.

“We really are in a war with this virus,” said Pittman. “We’ve done well, we’ve won some battles. It’s a war in which everyone is enlisted, and we can’t afford to abandon our posts.”

Overall, Maryland has seen an increase of more than 200 overall hospitalizations since Monday. The 863 current patients are the most since there were 902 on June 11. Acute and intensive care patients are all at early June levels.

Additionally, the state reported 1,477 new cases Thursday, the ninth consecutive day of 1,000 or more cases. The seven-day rolling average for new daily cases now exceeds 1,419 people, a new record replacing yesterday’s record-setting number. The average daily cases is now 51% higher than Nov. 5 and nearly 84% higher than Oct. 29.

The state is also reporting a new record number of new cases per 100,000 in population at 22.82. This is the fifth consecutive day in which the state has set a new record in this measurement. 

“Now we’ve reached a crisis point,” said Anne Arundel County Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman, “The warning signs were flashing yellow. Now they’re red.” 

And while leaders of larger suburban counties are expressing concern, the surges being seen are not limited to those areas.

“We’re in bad shape all around the state, including some of the small rural counties that have some of the highest case rates right now,” said Pittman.

Twenty counties have per capita infection rates above 10 per 100,000 people, up from 19 Wednesday. Allegany reports the highest rate, 63.1 per capital.  Baltimore city is now at 30.3. Seven jurisdictions — Somerset, Baltimore Washington, Harford and Anne Arundel Counties, Charles and Prince George’s — have rates above 20. Another six jurisdictions are above 15.

Beginning Friday, bars and restaurants in Anne Arundel County will be limited to 25% capacity — a limit below the 50% limit imposed by Hogan on Tuesday.

“We know you can’t ‘wear the damn mask’ when you’re eating,” said Pittman, paraphrasing Hogan a week ago imploring Maryland residents to wear face coverings. “And you can’t wear the damn mask when you’re drinking. So we’re in our restaurants and in our bars without our damn masks.”

Pittman also announced limits on indoor gatherings to 10 or fewer people and outdoor gatherings of no more than 25 people. The county will also end all youth recreation and parks sports activities.

Pittman said Hogan’s advisory warning against but not outright prohibiting indoor gatherings of less than 25 people announced Tuesday didn’t go far enough.

“We want to discourage people from having those kinds of numbers in their homes,” said Pittman. 

Baltimore city is already imposing a limit on gatherings as well as ordering bars that serve food and traditional restaurants to close at 11 p.m. Bars that do not serve food will be prohibited from opening.

Similarly, Alsobrooks at a separate news conference Thursday announced new restrictions in her county. The new restrictions, she said, were all targeted and based on contact tracing that is suggesting where infections are most likely to occur.

“We don’t want to paint with a broad brush,” she said.

Starting Sunday, indoor gatherings in Prince George’s County will be limited to 10 people or no more than 1 person per 200 square feet of indoor space. Outdoor gatherings will be limited to 25 people.

“It does not mean you can cram 10 people into your apartment and think you are following the rules,” said Dr. Ernest Carter, Prince George’s County health officer.

Carter said those guidelines mean residents of Prince George’s will likely have to alter their traditional plans for Thanksgiving celebrations.

Prince George’s will also require the use of face coverings when outside at all times except when someone is engaged in vigorous exercise, Alsobrooks said.

Alsobrooks also announced grants of up to $25,000 for restaurants on a first-come, first-served basis.

Hogan speaking at his news conference said he too will steer clear of big holiday celebrations.

“I am taking my own advice,” said Hogan, who because of his age and history of  cancer falls into higher risk categories. “We were actually hoping to get our family together.”

In a typical year, those celebrations would involve his wife, three daughters and their spouses and four grandchildren.

“We made the determination to cancel all those plans. Everybody is going to stay home with their immediate families and the First Lady and I will be having, hopefully, dinner together by ourselves. It’s exactly what we’re telling people. I don’t know how you implement those kinds of orders some of those counties are taking about what people do in their own house but I am strongly advising people that it is much safer, that family gatherings are the most dangerous thing that we have according to our contact tracing. We’re taking it to heart.”

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