As cases of COVID-19 in Maryland hospitals and ICU units begin to plateau, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr .(R) announced moves Wednesday that foreshadow a slow re-establishment of the norm for state residents.
Effective 7 a.m. Thursday, Marylanders can resume a broad range of outdoor activities, including golf, tennis, camping, boating and fishing. Hogan also announced the reopening of state parks, playgrounds and beaches.
Additionally, the Maryland Department of Health is giving guidance for medical professionals, including dentists, to resume elective and non-COVID-19-related procedures.
“Marylanders have made incredible sacrifices in recent weeks and because of that, thousands of lives have been saved and the numbers of infections are so much better than they would have been,” the governor said at a State House news conference Wednesday afternoon. “And while we still do need several more days of good metrics, our Coronavirus Recovery Team … has agreed that there are some additional things that we can do safely right now.”
Hogan said that in the past week, the state saw a five-day streak of downward hospitalization trends, with a slight bump Monday, and an encouraging leveling-off of patients receiving care in state ICUs.
“If these trends continue into next week, we will be ready to lift the stay-at-home order and to begin stage one of our recovery plan,” he said.
Dr. David Marcozzi, the COVID-19 incident commander for the University of Maryland Medical System, said it is imperative for Marylanders to use caution and “common sense” when participating in these activities.
“The virus is still with us,” he explained, adding that people need to maintain social distance while enjoying activities outside, practice appropriate hygiene, only gather in small groups and, if possible, wear masks.
“To continue to flatten the curve, we as Marylanders need to be consistently making the right choices for ourselves, for our friends, and our family,” Marcozzi said.
Hogan’s decision to allow people to walk on state-owned beaches comes two days after the mayor of Ocean City decided independently to open beaches there this Saturday.
The state’s policy applies to beaches operated by the Department of Natural Resources — and it’s narrower than the one adopted by Ocean City.
Under Hogan’s guidance, beaches will open Thursday for “walking, jogging, running, swimming and fishing.” The ban on groups of 10 or more remains in effect. Chairs, blankets and picnics will be prohibited.
Asked if visitors to Ocean City can sunbathe and swim, Mayor Richard W. Meehan said in a text message, “As long as people are not violating the Governor’s Stay at Home Order, they are allowed to go on the beach. We do not encourage swimming before the life guards are on duty Memorial Day Weekend.”
While a few boardwalk establishments may begin serving takeout food, most will remain shuttered until at least Memorial Day weekend. Hotels and short-term rental apartments are also off-limits until then.
“Social distancing is required,” Meehan added.
Hogan and Meehan talked at length by phone before the town decided to open its beach. During the conversation, the mayor said the governor’s decision to open beaches in coordination with Virginia and Delaware “doesn’t really work for us.”
Although he didn’t criticize Ocean City’s decision, Hogan appeared to suggest that it’s too early for beach activity to ramp up too quickly.
“We’re encouraging people to walk on the beach and walk on the boardwalks,” he said. “But crowds of people all congregating together and going about their normal way that they would go, I think we’re not quite ready for that.”
Sen. Mary Beth Carozza (R-Lower Shore) said she is “very excited” about the lifting of restrictions on outdoor activity.
“I’ve had numerous constituents across my district — whether it’s boaters or golfers or tennis players or people who just love to walk in our parks — ask when can we expect to be outside again,” she said. “So today was welcome news.”
While the state’s parks and beaches are reopening, Maryland public schools will remain shut.
Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Karen B. Salmon announced that she is canceling in-person learning for the remainder of the school year.
“After extensive discussions with the Maryland State Board of Education, the Maryland Health Department and additional health experts advising the governor, I am convinced this is the appropriate decision in order to continue to protect the health and safety of our students, educators, staff, and all members of school communities throughout Maryland,” she said.
As it stands, Maryland public school students have not attended any lessons taught in classrooms since March 13. Salmon said that students are to continue participating in distance learning through the balance of the year.
While schools remain closed, the Department of Education continues to consider plans for their slow reopening. Salmon announced that in a combined effort between stakeholders and local superintendents, the department has drafted the Maryland Together Recovery Plan for Education, a “comprehensive plan for long-term recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.”
Salmon said that while school systems do not have to follow this plan, the calendar for reopening schools may “dovetail” with Hogan’s recovery plan.
In mid-April, Hogan rolled out the “Maryland Strong: Roadmap to Recovery” — a three-phase plan to reopen the state.
In order for state officials to safely implement the beginnings of the reentry plan, Maryland must meet four “building blocks, including increased testing, greater hospital surge capacity, expanded supply of personal protective equipment, and a “robust contact tracing operation.”
Should it be enacted, the first phase of the state’s recovery plan would allow for the reopening of some businesses and the activation of “low-risk” religious and community events.
Steps in the right direction
Late last month, Hogan announced that he had acquired over 500,000 tests from South Korea.
When combined with an expansion of lab capacity and a shipment of swabs from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the governor said Wednesday that the state has been able to augment its testing ability, including at chicken processing plants on the Eastern Shore and state nursing homes, both of which the governor said are to be universally tested.
“We expanded testing on the Eastern Shore in response to outbreaks at poultry processing plants, testing 2,300 people at Perdue Stadium in Salisbury just last weekend,” Hogan said. “In addition, we will be conducting universal testing shift by shift at both of Maryland’s processing plants to ensure that every single poultry worker is tested and we are placing a surge tent at Easton Memorial Hospital to prepare for a spike in patients from that outbreak.
“The CDC is on the ground in Salisbury to assist with contact tracing and we continue to coordinate with our partners in Delaware and Virginia in an effort to protect the Delmarva region’s poultry industry and the national food supply chain,” the governor said.
Maryland lawmakers were told on Wednesday that the state’s nursing homes aren’t able to test residents and staff as often as they would like.
During a meeting of the General Assembly’s Joint COVID-19 Response Legislative Workgroup, the head of the association that represents Maryland nursing homes called testing “a major, major problem.”
“There’s a shortage of testing,” said Joseph DeMattos Jr., the president of the Health Facilities Association of Maryland. “It’s one thing for the state to order testing. But to order testing in an environment where testing is not available is a problem.”
DeMattos said Maryland nursing homes frequently receive only a fraction of the tests they request from their local health departments.
Part of the problem, he said, is that counties have adopted their own standards for deciding who is eligible for the tests.
DeMattos urged the legislature to pressure Hogan to adopt a statewide standard, and to stagger testing of nursing home staff, so facilities aren’t swamped with a sudden wave of positive results.
“Everybody can say that testing is mandatory and everybody needs to be testing,” he said. “The reality on the ground is there are not these tests deployed at this point.”
Hogan said Wednesday afternoon that universal testing in elder care facilities will “not be done overnight,” nor is the state “just handing out tests.” Rather, he explained that the state will begin testing “the hottest ones with the biggest problems and working our way down the list.”
Regarding contact tracing, the governor announced Maryland’s recent contract with the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, which Hogan said is poised to “quadruple” the state’s investigating ability.
Maryland is in the process of hiring workers for its contact tracing program. The governor revealed that officials received more than 900 applications for these positions from across the state.
While the state beefs-up its contact tracing capabilities, it has also exponentially increased its ability to treat those who fall victim to COVID-19.
Hogan said that the state’s number of viable hospital beds for COVID-19 patients has increased by over 8,000 units and that the supply of personal protective equipment has grown by 4.5 million KN95 masks, 600,000 N95 masks, 150,000 medical gowns, over one million face shields and 3.5 million gloves.
He said that Maryland has spent hundreds of millions of dollars building up these stockpiles — something that he said the state has never had to do in such a short time before.
“We don’t do this on a normal basis,” said the governor. “But if we didn’t find them, people were going to die.”
Hogan also acknowledged that in its pursuit of this necessary equipment, the state may have fallen victim to fraud.
Last week, he directed the Maryland Department of General Services to cancel an emergency order of personal protective equipment, including masks and ventilators, from Blue Flame Medical, ordering Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) to launch an investigation.
Since then, the U.S. Department of Justice has started its own investigation of Blue Flame Medical, noting that other states have had similar interactions with the company, including California.
“We were lucky to catch this one situation. Hopefully, there aren’t others,” Hogan said.
By Hannah Gaskill and Bruce DePuyt