ANNAPOLIS — Maryland businesses will move closer to a pre-pandemic normal as part of a set of orders issued by Gov. Larry Hogan Tuesday that will remove most restrictions.
The order, which takes effect Friday at 5 p.m., comes as the state is seeing increased vaccination rates and weeks of lower cases, hospitalizations and deaths compared to December and January. Still, the governor and others are warning not to act as if the coronavirus has been defeated and acknowledged that the state is seeing a plateau that could turn into a fourth spike if residents let their guards down.
“With vaccinations rapidly rising and our health metrics steadily improving, the lifting of these restrictions is a prudent, positive step in the right direction and an important part of our economic recovery,” said Hogan. “These steps were made possible because of Marylanders wearing masks, washing their hands, keeping their distance and following the public health advice.”
As part of the state announcement, most businesses, including retail, fitness, religious facilities, personal services, casinos, bingo halls, bowling alleys and outdoor and indoor dining at restaurants and bars will be allowed to fully open.
Mask usage indoors, outdoors when distancing is not possible, and indoor social distancing requirements will still be in place so most will not be able to go back to a full 100% capacity.
All of the orders issued by Hogan are subject to local orders. Local government leaders can continue to have stricter requirements.
“My advice would be that they should follow the state guidance,” said Hogan.
Hogan said the state is moving closer to the “light at the end of the tunnel” and a return to normalcy.
“Over the last few weeks as we marked one year of grappling with this deadly virus many of us have been recalling our lasts: the last time we ate inside a restaurant; the last time we celebrated a big occasion with family and friends; the last time we went to a ballgame; the last time we took a family vacation,” said Hogan. “In the weeks and months ahead, with continued vigilance, together we will instead begin to mark new firsts. Everything won’t look exactly the same just yet and we do need to continue doing the things that keep us safe.”
Hogan’s order comes a week before St. Patrick’s Day. The governor said patrons and bars and restaurants will still be required to sit at a bar or table and distance from other customers.
“You can be standing, jammed into a bar,” said Hogan. “That’s still against the regulations.”
Additionally, other venues including large outdoor sporting arenas such as Oriole Park at Camden Yards and outdoor wedding, concert and racing venues will be able to open at 50% capacity with masks usage and social distancing.
“The sun is shining,” said Hogan “Spring is coming and the weather is getting warmer. We want to stress that outside activity continues to be safer than indoor activity. “
The Orioles are scheduled to open at home on April 8. Hogan said he is looking forward to taking in a ballgame.
Also lifted are quarantine guidelines for travelers returning to the state from areas where the virus is spreading rapidly.
Dr. Robert Redfield, Hogan’s new coronavirus adviser, praised the governor’s announcement and said the move to reopen is more than just an economic issue.
“It’s also a really important public health imperative,” said Redfield. “The health consequences of prolonged isolation have been well documented, especially the impact on mental health.”
In the last week some states, including Texas and Mississippi, have lifted restrictions on mask requirements. President Joe Biden has criticized leaders of those states for what he called “Neanderthal thinking” in lifting mask mandates.
“One of the most important things is that we kept the masking orders in place and the distancing orders in place,” said Hogan. “Many states have not done that, and I think acted a little more rapidly to just get rid of all the mitigation efforts, and we chose not to do that.”
On Tuesday, the state reported 631 new cases, 792 hospitalizations and 25 deaths. The statewide positivity rate has fallen to 3.4% and no counties are in the red zone for infections. All of the statistics are lower than the peaks seen in mid-January.
“The next phase of the pandemic is going to be about keeping the virus at bay as it mutates as variants are developed that try to get around our countermeasures such as vaccines and the antibody therapies that have been developed,” said Redfield.
Even so, the rate at which cases have been dropping has slowed and plateaued. The per-capita rate of infections is nearly 13 per 100,000 population — a figure that keeps Maryland on a list of states whose residents must quarantine for two weeks when traveling to Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. Additionally, the infection rate that once fell below 0.9 is now creeping back up to 1. The rate indicates the number of people to whom an infected patient will transmit the virus. A number above 1 indicates that the virus is successfully spreading in the community.
“We’ve been trending in a good direction for about a month,” said Hogan. “Yes, we’re seeing a little bit of a leveling but no increases. We’re not going down at as fast a pace, but we’re still heading in the right direction.”