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Montgomery’s Elrich blasts ruling voiding mask requirement for transportation

“I’ve always been comfortable with mask mandates,” says Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich. “I’ve always thought they were kind of a minimalist approach to making sure we could protect people.” (The Daily Record/File Photo)

The leader of Maryland’s most populous county is decrying a federal judge’s ruling striking down a mask requirement on planes and public transportation.

On Monday, a federal judge in Florida voided an order by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mandating masks on planes and other modes of public transportation. The ruling, which is under appeal, resulted in a number of jurisdictions, including Montgomery County, to end the requirements on buses and other forms of public transit.

County Executive Marc Elrich told reporters Wednesday he was “not pleased” about the ruling or ending the mask mandate on public transportation in his county.

“Let’s be blunt: This was a bad ruling from a (President Donald) Trump-appointed judge who has absolutely zero expertise in public health, is imposing (her) ideology on public health, which is absolutely inappropriate,” said Elrich, adding that such a ruling undermines the ability to combat future surges or other public health emergencies.

“In short, this ruling is nuts,” he said.

Elrich said he hoped an appeal would be successful. He said he had “no qualms at all with reinstating a mask mandate. Elrich was cautious about what would trigger the mandate but said it could include transportation and other spaces open to the public.

“I’ve always been comfortable with mask mandates,” said Elrich. “I’ve always thought they were kind of a minimalist approach to making sure we could protect people. That’s always been my approach to this, and it’s going to continue to be my approach.”

Montgomery County, along with the rest of the state, is considered low community transmission by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The county is following the state as it sees an uptick in cases over the last several weeks driven primarily by strains of the omicron variant of the virus.

“Our rise in transmission levels is already well above where we were with the delta wave,” said Sean O’Donnell, program administrator of the county’s Public Health and Emergency Preparedness office.

Hospitalizations, however, were “considerably higher” during the surge of the delta variant, he said.

“We are not predicting anything regarding where the hospitalizations are going but we are cautiously optimistic,” said O’Donnell. “Thus far, they have been lower than where they have been during similar transmission rates.”

County officials are also monitoring cases in neighboring jurisdictions. The District of Columbia and Arlington County, Virginia, are both experiencing moderate community transmission.

Statewide, Maryland is reporting a rolling seven-day average of more than 700 new cases per day — up about 33% over the previous week. Hospitalizations across the state remain lower than what was seen during the wave of the delta variant last year and the initial surge of the omicron variant.

“When you look at (increases) in context to the previous spike, you see that these cases are not rising anywhere near that of the previous omicron spike,” said O’Donnell. “It is going up. We are having increasing positivity.”

In Montgomery County, visits to emergency rooms are creeping up. Hospitalized patients have risen 56% in the past week.

“This would normally be a reason for alarm but it’s actually still a very low percentage of county available beds because we pushed those cases and (hospitalizations) down to very, very low numbers,” Elrich said.

And while the increase is based “a very low floor, we can’t sustain this week after week,” Elrich said.