Starting July 1, Baltimore will lift its citywide mask mandate and state of emergency, a decision that came just one day after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced the same measures for the state.
Mayor Brandon Scott and health commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, speaking at a news conference Wednesday outside the Baltimore City Health Department, said the move validates the “incredible progress” the city has made in mitigating the infections, deaths and hospitalizations caused by the virus.
“The pandemic is not over,” Scott warned even as he announced the end of the restrictions. “We will continue to follow the science and allow decision-making to follow the data.”
The Democratic mayor said businesses and workplaces would be able to maintain their own mask mandates, and encouraged residents to “be courteous” to one another as they encounter people and policies they may not agree with. And city buildings, such as City Hall, would not open immediately to the public or for full employee use, he added.
City officials previously said they would keep Baltimore’s mask mandate in place until at least 65% of the adult population received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. As of Wednesday, slightly more than 57% of Baltimore adults had been at least partially immunized, according to city data, representing some 270,000 residents.
But with neighboring jurisdictions, such as Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, loosening their remaining restrictions and following the state’s lead on mask mandates, Baltimore officials decided to follow suit.
Scott said conversations about lifting the city’s mask mandate started over the weekend, ahead of the state’s announcement Tuesday. It follows his administration’s data-driven approach, he added.
Data shows an 82% reduction in cases and a 73% decrease in deaths over the last month in the city. Dzirasa said the trends demonstrate the effectiveness of vaccinations in abating the public health crisis.
“The public health threat of coronavirus remains high for the unvaccinated population, specifically,” she said. “If you’re unvaccinated, unless you have a significant medical reason, please get vaccinated as soon as possible.”
She said those who remained hesitant or skeptical about the vaccine should seek out information from trusted sources, such as health care professionals or community ambassadors. She cautioned against declaring the coronavirus pandemic “over,” given the spread of more contagious variants circulating in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Nearly 700 COVID-19 cases in Maryland have been linked to the variants, data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show, though the actual number could be higher given the state’s limited capacity for genomic sequencing and its shift from widespread testing to vaccinations this winter and spring.
The CDC estimates that some 20,000 COVID-19 cases in the U.S. can be linked to the variants, including those first discovered in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil. A new so-called Delta variant from India now accounts for nearly 10% of new U.S. cases, the CDC said Tuesday.
The federal agency has identified six variants of concern in the country, noting that they seem to spread easier and more quickly than other variants and could cause new strains on the health care system.
But the authorized vaccines appear to protect people from contracting the variants, according to the CDC. And as more people get inoculated, the virus’ ability to mutate further will decline.
“You need to consider the risk of not getting vaccinated,” cautioned Dzirasa, warning that those hospitalized recently for COVID typically are not vaccinated.
The city’s testing positivity rate also has fallen by two-thirds in four weeks, standing at just 0.7% Wednesday, city figures show. The rate has remained under 5% for more than two weeks, a threshold set by the World Health Organization for local governments before they consider loosening restrictions or reopening.
Other neighboring areas, such as Harford and Howard counties, also will follow the state’s timeline in ending their jurisdictional states of emergency. Carroll County terminated its state of emergency a week ago.
Scott’s decision to keep pace with Hogan represents a shift in how the city has managed the public health crisis. The city frequently moved at a slower pace than the state, setting different vaccination benchmarks and choosing to keep indoor dining closed and mask mandates in place after statewide restrictions were loosened or eliminated.
Hogan and Scott have sparred at times over the separate approaches. In February, Hogan criticized the city for “declining” extra doses of vaccine and receiving more than it was “entitled to,” drawing outrage from city leaders and advocates and spotlighting Baltimore’s under-resourced public health capacity. Scott, meanwhile, has said Hogan’s administration has moved too quickly in reopening parts of the state and prematurely ended virus-related restrictions.
Dr. Gregory Schrank, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, told The Sun Tuesday that Maryland is well-positioned when it comes to managing cases and hospitalizations, and that summer is a logical time to lift mask mandates. But Schrank said health officials should remain concerned about current or additional virus variants.
Baltimore Sun reporters Meredith Cohn and Emily Opilo contributed to this article.