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At ‘crisis point,’ Baltimore County tightens coronavirus restrictions on gatherings and restaurant hours, shuts down youth sports

As Maryland reported a record high number of coronavirus cases Friday, Baltimore County joined a growing list of local governments opting to tighten coronavirus restrictions.

The new regulations, announced by County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., will limit the size of gatherings, require bars and restaurants to close early, and shut down all organized recreational youth sports.

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“We very well may be facing our toughest challenge yet: COVID’s long, dark winter,” the Democrat said.

The announcement came just after the state reported 1,869 new coronavirus cases, an all-time daily high. Hospitalizations statewide hit 914 — their highest levels since June — and the state’s 14-day new case average set a pandemic record for the fifth straight day, up to 1,247 from 787 just 10 days ago.

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Effective at 5 p.m. Sunday, all social gatherings in Baltimore County will be limited to 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors, Olszewski said at a news conference. These restrictions will apply to gatherings like parties, backyard weddings, concerts, fundraisers and other similar events, said Sean Naron, a spokesman for Olszewski.

It won’t impact restaurants, wedding venues, businesses, private schools, child care or other establishments “where existing, specific state orders are already in place," Naron said .

All bars and restaurants will be required to close at midnight each night. And starting Tuesday, all youth recreational sports, indoor and outdoor, will be prohibited, Olszewski said.

Baltimore County joins Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Harford, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in imposing stricter virus-related restrictions in the past week.

Gov. Larry Hogan announced Tuesday the state was reducing indoor dining capacity from 75% to 50%.

Baltimore County’s new guidelines don’t lower those limits further, like neighboring jurisdictions like Baltimore City and Anne Arundel did. But the county’s restrictions do go beyond some of the Republican governor’s statewide regulations, which discourage, not ban, gatherings of more than 25 people.

Gatherings have been driving a significant amount of the virus' spread, Olszewski said.

“This is to save lives and to keep our businesses open,” said Olszewski, pointing to surging case rates and hospitalizations. "These are not numbers. These are our neighbors.”

A mask mandate and other COVID-19 related restrictions also will be more strictly enforced, Olszewski said. County officials can issue notices and citations or require closings for “repeated or severe violation,” Naron said.

The county’s social distancing task force has been involved in about 5,200 proactive and complaint-based inspections to ensure adherence to social distancing and masking regulations, Naron said.

After the state reported a record number of new daily cases Friday, Olszewski said it is now a critical moment during the pandemic.

Olszewski echoed Hogan, who said Thursday that the coming “weeks and months ahead will be the most difficult we have faced."

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Maryland has reported a total of 161,769 confirmed cases and 4,124 deaths since March.

The state’s reported rolling seven-day positivity rate was 5.87% Friday, up from 5.65% Thursday. Maryland’s positivity rate has spiked precipitously in recent weeks, jumping from just 3% Oct. 22.

The virus is surging across the state. Alleghany County remains a particular hot spot, reporting 126 new cases Friday — 9% of the county’s pandemic total. For context, the Western Maryland county reported just 30 fewer cases Friday than Anne Arundel County, which has about eight times the population.

Baltimore County’s seven-day average case rate per 100,000 people has jumped to 27.57 as of Thursday from 10.6 as of Oct. 24, according to state data. During that time, the county’s positivity rate has also more than doubled, going from 3.11% to 6.42%.

Olszewski attributed much of the surge to a “double whammy” of colder weather forcing people indoors — where “transmission thrives" — and residents allowing a “false sense of safety to take over.”

“We are at a crisis point,” Olszewski said. “We don’t want to have to make additional restrictions. We want to keep people safe and we want to keep people with their jobs employed. We hope that people take seriously all these actions so we don’t have to take additional actions in the days and weeks ahead."

Nancy Hafford, executive director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce, said it would “crush” local businesses if the county executive had lowered indoor capacity at businesses and restaurants to 25%, like in Baltimore City.

“I’ve got a lot of businesses here in Towson that have other places down in the city" Hafford said. “And they don’t think they’re going to make it.”

The chamber also is pleased with the county’s decision to close restaurants at midnight, rather than 11 p.m. like in the city, Hafford said.

“We were very glad that they didn’t roll it back any more than 12 o’clock because a lot of the restaurants serve food until at least 10, some of them 11 o’clock," she said. "People wouldn’t have been able to stay and eat. And they can’t afford to lose any more than they have.”

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