Because of strides Maryland has made in containing the COVID-19 outbreak, the state will lift its stay-at-home order on Friday, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) announced Wednesday.
The move means most businesses can reopen and churches can hold services — both at limited capacity.
But Hogan cautioned that the adoption of “Stage 1” of the state’s reopening plan depends on residents wearing masks and practicing social distancing.
And he acknowledged that several of the state’s largest jurisdictions will not move into reopening mode at the same time as lesser-populated communities, due to elevated coronavirus infection levels.
“We are going about this in what we believe to be a safe way,” he told reporters at a late afternoon State House news conference.
“A lot of it depends on how everyone treats this first phase. If everybody goes crazy and does things that are unsafe, we’re going to balloon back up and slow down the process.”
• Most retailers can reopen at 50% capacity, provided customers abide by social distancing precautions and wear masks;
• Barber shops and hair salons can open at 50% capacity; and on an appointment-only basis
• Churches can hold services at 50% capacity
• Manufacturing plants can reopen if workers can be spaced sufficiently apart and wear masks, and if high-touch surfaces are kept clean
• Maryland bars and restaurants remain limited to carry-out orders.
Hogan said the move into Phase 1 of what he’s dubbed the “Roadmap to Recovery” was endorsed unanimously by the public health experts with whom he has been consulting.
“Maryland has achieved the 14-day trend of plateauing and declining numbers,” of hospitalization and ICU rates, he said.
In reality, the 12 highest days of total hospitalizations since the pandemic began occurred in the last 15 days. The reduction in total hospitalizations, to the extent the state has seen one, has come in the last 72 hours.
As of Wednesday, Maryland has had 34,812 confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection, a jump of 751 from the day before.
The state reported 51 deaths Tuesday, bringing the total to 1,694.
Hogan said suburban Maryland, the District of Columbia and Northern Virginia “are the hotspots in the country, behind New York.”
Hogan has been under growing pressure from GOP lawmakers and the business community to ease restrictions. Unemployment has spiked and many business owners have said they are at risk of failure.
Christine Ross, president and CEO of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, said the organization is “grateful that the day has come to begin moving into the first phase of economic recovery.”
The governor stressed that day-to-day life will continue to be affected by the pandemic. Maryland’s stay-at-home order is being replaced by a “safer-at-home” guideline. Hand-washing is strongly advised.
“It does not mean that we are safe or that this crisis is over,” Hogan said. “Low-risk does not mean no-risk.”
He encouraged businesses to use curbside pickup and delivery to reduce interaction between customers and store employees. He said workers who can telework should do so. And he urged people — particularly the elderly and those with health conditions — to avoid crowds.
With schools closed, many workers will soon find themselves in a child-care bind. Hogan said State Superintendent of Schools Karen B. Salmon will announce a daycare plan “early next week.”
“Like the governor, I am hopeful that this stage will go well and we can quickly open other businesses,” Talbot County Council President Corey Pack said in a statement. “But we must continue to take precautions to keep our residents, businesses, and workers safe.”
Talbot County Health Officer Dr. Fredia Wadley agreed.
“The COVID-19 virus is more dangerous now. But we are confident that by using some simple preventive measures we can slow the spread of this virus,” Wadley said. “We will continue to do everything we can to keep Talbot County safe and to work with our businesses so they can operate in a safe and effective way.”
Though the governor’s Stage I reopening plan offers a hope to Talbot County’s business community, Emergency Services Director Clay Stamp said we still have a long way to go before daily lives return to normal.
“We must continue promoting the use of safety measures for both individuals and our businesses to ensure a balance between getting people out but in a safe manner and helping some of our businesses and their teams get back to work,” he said. “We must remember: this is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Talbot County had 63 cases and one death as of Wednesday afternoon.
Prince George’s and Montgomery counties account for half of the state’s 34,812 infections, and local leaders in those counties have said they will not relax restrictions on business and social gatherings.
Baltimore County has 12% of the state’s case count and Baltimore City has 10%.
In a joint statement on Wednesday evening, County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. (D) and Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D) also signaled that those two jurisdictions would also likely lag behind the rest of the state.
“For the Baltimore region to safely move into all of Phase One, we need more access to personal protective equipment, as well as increased testing capacity and more robust contact tracing,” they wrote.
“We’ve seen some progress in each of these areas, but we have to do even more.”
Young and Olszewski said they would take “a close look” at Hogan’s actions and determine their course in the next 24 hours.
“We acknowledge that this will not be welcome news to all of our residents,” the leaders said. “Individuals and businesses continue to make real sacrifices, and those sacrifices are preventing the spread of a deadly virus. However, rushing to reopen in our large, densely populated jurisdictions jeopardizes the lives of our neighbors and loved ones.”
The leaders of Howard County and Anne Arundel County also reacted with caution to Hogan’s announcement.
“Howard County does not meet many of the criteria that the Governor outlined in his four building blocks to reopen,” County Executive Calvin Ball (D) said in a statement.
In a statement on Twitter, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) said he would review the provisions of Hogan’s recommendations with local officials and make decisions on how to proceed “in the coming days.”
Dr. George Askew, the top health adviser to Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D), told the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments on Wednesday that a number of factors are forcing Prince George’s to retain current restrictions.
Among them: the large number of “imported” infections from outside the county, the high number of “essential” workers who are at greater risk generally, and the disproportionate toll the virus has taken on people of color.
“While the rest of the state may continue to reopen, we have to take a measured and smart approach,” Askew said.
Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) issued a statement on Wednesday night saying that even though “our situation is improving,” the county will not reopen immediately.
These are the retailers that can partially reopen on Friday: Animal adoption shelters, art galleries, bookstores, car washes, clothing and shoe stores, florists, furniture stores, jewelers, lawn and garden stores, pawn shops, pet groomers, sporting goods stores, and tobacco and vape shops.
Even with Hogan’s announcement, the group ReOpenMD has a picket scheduled for Friday afternoon in downtown Annapolis, which it is calling “a peaceful assertion of our ‘right to protest’ Gov. Hogan’s lockdown and civil liberties violations.”
By Bruce DePuyt