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More Maryland counties impose mask mandates in government buildings

“This commonsense step will help limit the spread of COVID-19 and protect the health and safety of our workforce and visitors to our buildings and facilities,” said Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski, in a statement. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Two more Maryland jurisdictions will now require employees and visitors to wear masks while in county government buildings.

Baltimore and Howard counties join a growing list of larger jurisdictions that will mandate face coverings in government buildings this week. The announcements come as the state continues to see a rise in infections and all but one of 24 jurisdictions has exceeded federal standards for substantial coronavirus transmission.

Johnny Olszewski Jr. and Calvin Ball, the Democratic executives in Baltimore and Howard counties respectively, are not imposing countywide mandates or calling on local businesses to follow their lead.

“I have a feeling that because we are in a slightly different world now where we have vaccines, where we’ve learned so much about treating it that there is just less willingness to go to an across-the-board mandate on masking or the idea of capacity limits,” said Todd Eberly,  a professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Leaders in both jurisdictions, like Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, are focusing on efforts to increase the percentage of residents who are vaccinated against COVID-19 rather than the politically more difficult mask requirements and capacity limits.

“I’d have to think that the numbers in Maryland would have to change more before most counties would be willing to go back to a full-on mandate,” said Eberly. “I think politics does play into that because if you brought back the mask mandates because cases are on the rise, the next question is are you going to reinstitute capacity limits in places as well.”

The new rule in Baltimore County goes into effect on Friday for all county employees or visitors to a county government building regardless of vaccination status.

“This commonsense step will help limit the spread of COVID-19 and protect the health and safety of our workforce and visitors to our buildings and facilities,” said Olszewski, in a statement.

Ball issued the Howard County order Thursday after the county crossed the threshold for substantial coronavirus transmission.

“Howard County’s increasing case rates are concerning, and it is important for residents to be aware of the current risks, especially if they are still unvaccinated,” said Ball, in a statement. “Masks continue to be an effective tool in reducing the spread of COVID-19, and we want to ensure our employees and public visitors are safe when in our buildings.”

Neither Ball nor Olzewski are requiring masks in other public spaces. Both executives called for those who have  not been inoculated to get a vaccination.

It was not clear why Ball and Olszewski stopped short of wider mandates. Mark Miller, a spokesman for Ball, did not provide an explanation of how the risk is different in a county building compared to other buildings.

“Any time government does something it is leading by example,” said Miller.

A spokesman for Olszewski said he would look into the question.

In response to questions about why he had not called on county businesses to follow his lead, Ball issued a statement that read in part:

“I encourage everyone to follow the CDC guidance and wear masks when appropriate,” said Ball. “Our best way to beat COVID is to get vaccinated.”

In Baltimore County, nearly 68% of the total eligible population ages 12 and over are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Howard County boasts a vaccination rate of nearly 69% of all its residents and 81% of its eligible population ages 12 and older. Officials estimate that it has fewer than 40,000 eligible but unvaccinated residents.

Gov. Larry Hogan has lifted statewide mandates on masking and capacity limits. The second-term Republican governor has left it to local governments to impose mandates as needed.

Some have done so. Baltimore city and Prince George’s County have instituted mask mandates in all indoor public spaces regardless of vaccination. Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman imposed a mask requirement in county office buildings.

Miller noted that a number of businesses in the county have taken additional steps. Some restaurants require employees and patrons to wear masks. Merriweather Post Pavilion will require concertgoers to prove they are fully vaccinated or provide proof of a negative test.