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2 more counties order restrictions; Hogan announces business aid

ANNAPOLIS — Indoor dining in Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties will be prohibited starting next week as part of a new set of restrictions issued by county executives in those jurisdictions.

Meanwhile, Gov. Larry Hogan announced actions — including forgiving millions in pandemic loans to struggling businesses — but said he was not convinced additional restrictions were needed on a statewide level.

Both Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks and Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman Thursday cited increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases in their counties in announcing new restrictions.

The restrictions in both counties go into effect on Dec. 16 at 5 p.m. and are expected to last at least into January. Alsobrooks said her order is set to expire on Jan. 16. The Anne Arundel order will last at least four weeks, with the potential for an extension if hospitalizations remain high.

Starting Wednesday, restaurants in Prince George’s will be prohibited from indoor dining and will be limited to 50% capacity for outdoor seating. Delivery and takeout are unaffected by the order. Casinos and all retail will be limited to 255 capacity.

Maryland is seeing a surge that has surpassed cases during the spring. Gov. Larry Hogan and local leaders warn that the next two months could be some of the toughest of the pandemic.

Pittman’s order, which also goes into effect on Wednesday, is similar to those enacted in Prince George’s County and Baltimore city.

Restaurants will be closed to indoor and outdoor dining, but takeout and delivery will be permitted.

Pittman said he is waiving all licensing fees for restaurants for the next year. He is also submitting a bill to the county council to limit the fees charged by food delivery companies like DoorDash, which he said are inconsistent and potentially gouging.

Retail, casinos, salon and barber shops and gyms will be limited to 25% capacity. Mask wearing will be required, without exception in gyms and group classes are prohibited.

Churches in Anne Arundel County will be permitted to operate at one-third indoor capacity and 250 people for outdoor services. Drive-up services have no limits on attendance.

The rolling seven-day average for new daily cases is 2,922, a new high. The average daily cases is 37% higher than a week ago and nearly 30% more than Nov. 26.

Pittman, in a joint news conference with leaders from other jurisdictions Wednesday, cited an analysis from Johns Hopkins warning of 10,000 COVID patient hospitalizations in a state health care system of roughly 8,000 beds.

“That’s what we have to prevent and I don’t want to sugarcoat that,” said Pittman, saying that making the decisions to implement additional restrictions was hard “because we’ve done everything we could in recent months to prevent this from happening.”

The state added 3,202 new infections in the last 24 hours — the second most of any day and third time the state. Maryland has reached 3,000 or more cases three times, all in December. Previously, the state had never crossed 2,000 cases.

Today marks the 20th time in 27 days that the state has reported 2,000 or more new cases in a day. The state has reported 2,000 or more cases for 10 consecutive days.

For the second consecutive day, Maryland Thursday reported new highs in overall and acute patients as well as the seven-day rolling average for news cases in a day.

Total hospitalizations by five patients to 1,720 — a new peak surpassing the high mark set Wednesday. Total acute patients in the state reached a new peak for the pandemic that was also set on Wednesday, Increasing by five people to 1,304.  The state has set new peaks in acute patient hospitalizations four times since Dec. 1.

ICU patients, which typically lag behind acute patients, are already at 68% of the peak seen in the spring.

The 24,720 infections so far this month make December the third highest month of the pandemic behind only May  and November. The 334 deaths so far this month is fifth most during nearly nine month pandemic.

Eili Klein, a professor of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins and the author of that weekly projection, warned that actions taken in the summer to slow the spread of the virus are ineffective in the winter months.

“The projections in terms of the number of hospital beds if we don’t do things to contain the spread is going to be beyond the capacity of the state and that will lead to degraded care and unnecessary mortality and morbidity,” said Klein.

Currently, there are roughly 8,000 staffed hospital beds in the state of Maryland and another 2,500 beds that are not staffed. The hospitals have the ability to expand to another 2,400 beds, according to the Maryland Hospital Association.

Expansion is, in part, dependent on the ability to recruit enough trained medical personnel at a time when states across the country are in similar positions.

Hogan, speaking Thursday afternoon in his second coronavirus-related news conference of the pandemic, announced the state would forgive $75 million in loans provided to businesses earlier this year as part of a pandemic aid effort. The loans will be converted into grants that will not have to be paid back.

The governor also said he would issue an executive order that would protect small businesses in Maryland from massive increases in their unemployment insurance premiums that are likely as the result of pandemic-driven job losses.

Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz said the announcements were “a valuable lifeline to businesses that are on the bubble.

The announcement doesn’t put new money in the pockets of business owners who are struggling to keep their doors open. Mike O’Halloran, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business said Hogan’s announcement will lift a large weight off the shoulders of small business owners.

“Unfortunately, Maryland small business owners will still see their unemployment insurance premiums skyrocket next year,” said O’Halloran. “Even an employer who did not have to lay off a single worker throughout all of 2020 will see an increase in their UI taxes from $25 per employee to $187 per employee. That is a seven-fold increase.

“But had it not been for the action taken today by Governor Hogan, those taxes would have gone even higher for employers forced to lay off workers because of government shutdowns. We must continue to look for ways to get financial assistance to our state’s jobs creators whether it is through actions like today’s or another round of Congressional stimulus. We cannot afford to stop here.”

Other jurisdictions

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich has already submitted requests to his county council to restrict restaurants to outdoor dining, carryout and delivery as well as other measures.

On Wednesday, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott announced tighter restrictions, closing bars and restaurants to all but carryout and delivery services as well as imposing capacity limits on casinos, retailers and other businesses.

Hogan declined to criticize the moves by the executives, saying it was their prerogative to impose tougher restrictions than the state even but said most of the counties  are “not rowing in the same direction.”

The governor questioned the need to close outdoor dining.

“I don’t know where that decision came from,” said Hogan. “It doesn’t compute with most of the advice we’re getting from anywhere.”

Hogan said he and his task force continue with daily reviews of the current surge to determine if new actions are warranted.

“We’re not going to be dictated to by what one or two others decide to do,” said Hogan.

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