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Baltimore to reinstate indoor mask requirement Monday amid ‘substantial’ COVID transmission

Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, Baltimore Health Commissioner discusses the indoor mask mandate that has been reinstated for Baltimore City.

Residents and visitors to Baltimore will have to mask up again while indoors amid an increase in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, city officials announced Thursday.

The mask requirement is effective Monday at 9 a.m., Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said. It will apply to all indoor spaces in the city, public and private.

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Baltimore was one of the last jurisdictions in the state to lift its mask requirement on July 1 in coordination with Gov. Larry Hogan’s announcement that he would begin the process of lifting Maryland’s state of emergency. At the time, Scott and Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa applauded the “incredible progress” the city has made in mitigating the infections, deaths and hospitalizations caused by the virus.

But in the little more than one month that has passed since, infections have spiked nationwide, driven by the delta variant of the coronavirus, a dangerous and more contagious version of the virus. As of Thursday, 325 people were being treated for the virus in Maryland hospitals, a number that has roughly tripled in the past month.

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Of the coronavirus cases that are sequenced at Maryland labs, nearly all are delta variant infections, according to the Maryland Department of Health. Nationwide, the delta variant and its sub-lineages account for as much as 93% of all cases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest genomic surveillance data.

This drove the city’s decision to reinstate the mask mandate, Dzirasa said Thursday.

Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa and Mayor Brandon Scott announce the return of an indoor mask requirement beginning Monday, August 9 at 9 a.m.
Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa and Mayor Brandon Scott announce the return of an indoor mask requirement beginning Monday, August 9 at 9 a.m. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

Data also suggests that vaccinated individuals can spread the delta variant of the virus as easily as unvaccinated individuals, she said. It is now considered as contagious as the chickenpox by the CDC.

“The war has changed,” Dzirasa said, referencing an internal CDC document that became public last week. “Given the data, we must act in an attempt to address the surge of new cases.”

Scott, a Democrat, encouraged Baltimore residents to seek out answers to their questions about getting inoculated against COVID-19 as quickly as possible.

“More people will die. This is not fearmongering. This is reality,” he said. “We must all do our due diligence to protect ourselves and our neighbors, so please take the precautions necessary to keep your family safe.”

Reinstating a statewide mask policy is not on the table, Hogan, a Republican, said earlier this week, but individual municipalities across the state have begun discussing and implementing their own protective measures. Hogan said Thursday he supports the ability of local jurisdictions to make those decisions for themselves.

Beginning Thursday, all visitors to government buildings in Annapolis and Anne Arundel County — including libraries and senior centers — must wear masks.

Instead of a statewide masking requirement, Hogan instead called on state employees in Maryland “congregate care” facilities — prisons, hospitals, juvenile detention centers and a veterans’ home — to get immunized, or else be subject to face covering and COVID-19 testing requirements.

“These actions are being taken to further protect our most vulnerable systems. The state will lead by example with our own employees,” Hogan said.

Hogan encouraged private nursing homes to institute similar requirements for their employees, and notes that most hospital systems have done so already.

Baltimore, which is the first jurisdiction in the area to reinstate a full indoor mask mandate, already requires masks to be worn inside City Hall and other city-owned buildings, although the facilities remain largely closed to the public.

Later Thursday afternoon the Montgomery County Council voted to require masks indoors beginning Saturday.

The CDC released new guidelines last month, recommending both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals wear masks indoors in areas with substantial to high risk of infection.

Areas with substantial risk of transmission have at least 50 cases per 100,000 residents. Areas with high risk of transmission have at least 100 cases per 100,000 residents.

Baltimore’s seven-day average case rate, as of Wednesday, stood at nearly 58 cases per 100,000 residents, according to CDC data. The rates in Baltimore County (50.88 per 100,000), Anne Arundel (66.47 per 100,000), Harford (60.29 per 100,000), Prince George’s (77.97 per 100,000), Montgomery (52.44) and Frederick (69.74) also qualified as substantial.

Only two counties in Maryland — Dorchester and Wicomico — are currently considered high transmission regions. In all, 17 out of 24 counties were listed as having high or substantial transmission as of Wednesday.

The rates have been rapidly changing. One week ago, only one jurisdiction in the state — St. Mary’s County — was experiencing “substantial” transmission. On Tuesday, the CDC listed Baltimore and Montgomery counties as having “moderate” transmission but they were upgraded to “substantial” within 24 hours.

In Howard County, where the transmission rate is still “moderate” and 80% of the eligible population has been vaccinated, County Executive Calvin Ball said earlier this week that there’s no need for a mask rule in government buildings, at least not now. The county does continue to urge people who are not vaccinated to wear masks inside county buildings.

Baltimore County officials have said they are in discussions about what, if any, steps are needed to battle the delta variant.

Maryland’s state of emergency is set to expire on Aug. 15. Baltimore City officials said Thursday their authority to reinstate the mask mandate lies in the city charter and the powers vested in the city’s health commissioner, although a local state of emergency also remains in place.

Allan Massie, an epidemiologist and biomedical researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, called an indoor mask mandate for the unvaccinated and vaccinated “sensible” for the time being.

“Case counts are increasing and unfortunately we don’t have good data on breakthrough cases as they are happening,” said Massie about fully vaccinated people who test positive for COVID-19.

Massie is one of those cases. He was infected last month along with 10 other fully vaccinated people at a small house party in Montgomery County, where community transmission at the time was below the CDC threshold where indoor masking is recommended.

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“A universal mask mandate is easier to enforce, too,” he said. “People at the grocery aren’t checking your vaccination card. With a universal mandate you don’t have to consider who is vaccinated, and certainly there are plenty of cheaters.”

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Baltimore Sun reporters Meredith Cohn and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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