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Montgomery County eyes return to indoor mask mandate

Montgomery County could be the first in Maryland to return to indoor masking requirements as soon as tomorrow as county officials say they expect coronavirus cases to continue to rise.

The potential mandates would come as the county has seen increases in daily cases and the per-capita case rate and follows an announcement made by Anne Arundel County to require mask use in county government buildings.

“We’re not looking to shut things down,” said Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich. “Everything we’re doing is to prevent shutting things down.”

Montgomery County, as with the state and the nation, is seeing an increase in cases.

One month ago, the county was reporting single-digit increases in cases and a 0.79 per 100,000 person infection rate.

On Tuesday, the county reported 98 new cases and a per-capita rate of 7.49. Elrich said the county will move into the substantial transmission rate by tomorrow if it hasn’t already.

“This is a significant increase in cases that we’re dealing with,” said Elrich.

Overall hospital rates in the county remain low compared to peaks of the pandemic but are also increasing as cases rise.

The mandates, which will be voted on by the county council Thursday, track with CDC guidelines calling for use of masks in indoor spaces where the public gathers.

Under those guidelines, the CDC considers counties to have substantial transmission of the virus if a jurisdiction reaches an infection rate higher than 7 new daily cases per 100,000 population.

Currently, 14 of 24 jurisdictions meet that threshold: Baltimore city and Anne Arundel, Caroline, Calvert, Cecil, Charles, Dorchester, Frederick, Harford, Prince George’s, St. Mary’s, Washington, Wicomico and Worcester counties.

Nationally, about 3,000 counties meet the CDC threshold for substantial transmission rates.

“This week we continue to see increases in our case rates although we are still within moderate transmission rates, according to the CDC,” said Elrich.

Elrich showed reporters a map showing counties with substantial transmission rates in orange and Montgomery in yellow.

“Frankly we’re expecting that we will be orange within the next day or so based on the cases we’ve seen,” said Elrich.

“We’re an island but we’re not going to be an island for very much longer as the denser parts of Maryland have gone orange,” said Elrich. “We’ll be the next to flip, and we expect that trend to continue.”

The Montgomery County Council, acting as the county’s health board, is expected to vote on new masking requirements at a virtual meeting scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday.

Earlier this year, Gov. Larry Hogan announced he would lift mask mandates but leave local jurisdictions with the option to impose those requirements.

If approved, Montgomery County’s mandate would be the first jurisdiction-wide mandate since Hogan lifted state orders.

A spokesman for the governor said on Monday that no discussions are being held about returning to mask mandates. The governor is scheduled to hold a news conference Thursday to provide updates on the virus and the state’s vaccination efforts.

Earlier in the day, Gaithersburg and Rockville announced that all employees and visitors, regardless of vaccination status, would have to wear masks while in city government buildings.

On Monday, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman announced the county will require the use of masks in all county buildings by employees and visitors, regardless of vaccination status, starting this Friday.

Pittman, a Democrat, blamed Hogan, a Republican, for taking away the ability for him to impose a mandate on the county. Later, he acknowledged that he was unsure if he would impose such a mandate even if he had the authority. A spokesman also said Pittman could seek such authority from the Anne Arundel County Council.

Pittman, who also cited the need to follow CDC guidelines and the county’s substantial rate of virus transmission, called for businesses to impose mask requirements.

Anne Arundel County officials will also begin requiring all county employees to either be fully vaccinated or provide a weekly negative test in order to report for work. That requirement begins Sept. 13.

Elrich said such a requirement in Montgomery County is “where we’re headed.”