Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman elaborates on how his county's restrictions will differ from the statewide mandates issued by Gov. Hogan Thursday.
Maryland’s local leaders are determining how to chart their own course forward while protecting residents from the coronavirus pandemic less than 24 hours after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced his plan to lift the stay-at-home order.
Some county executives plan to plow ahead with their newfound freedom to resume — with some restrictions — manufacturing, retail, haircuts and worship services by Friday evening. Others said they were surprised by the extent of Hogan’s order and believe it’s too soon, as the virus continues to ravage their corners of the state.
Baltimore will keep its local stay-at-home order, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young announced Thursday. The mayor said the city lacks adequate testing supplies to safely relax restrictions, and blamed the state for not making more available.
“Baltimore City is simply not in the position to safely reopen at this time,” Young said. “Until the state steps up to the plate and provides us with testing help, it would be irresponsible for us to relax our restrictions.”
Young said he will consider his stance weekly, but only intends to start opening the city once it has enough testing kits.
The leaders of Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, the state’s two hardest-hit jurisdictions, also announced that they both will sign executive orders extending the stay-at-home order for their residents. With nearly 18,000 confirmed cases between those two neighboring counties, they account for about half of the state’s total COVID-19 patients.
Prince George’s Executive Angela Alsobrooks said that at least through June 1, residents should continue to only leave home for essential activities. Montgomery Executive Marc Elrich echoed Alsobrooks, saying “the local health conditions don’t warrant this change in policy.”
Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties announced small steps toward reopening.
At a Towson news conference, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said retail stores that have been closed can reopen for curbside pickup and delivery only starting at 5 p.m. Friday. And all manufacturing firms in the county can reopen.
But, Olszewski said religious institutions, barbershops, salons and shopping malls must remain closed.
There still is “not nearly the amount” of testing capacity to ensure it is safe to significantly reopen, he said. Olszewski said moving too quickly would “reverse all the progress we’ve made over the last few months.”
“So I ask for grace from those who might not agree with all of my decisions, knowing that they have been focused on allowing us to move forward in a safe and responsible manner,” he said.
“It’s been a long 24 hours, and I believe we have some progress that we can make safely,” Pittman said.
The county will not make changes in Hogan’s guidelines on manufacturing, which Pittman said already was allowed under the existing orders. Pittman cited a number of factors that went into the decision, including infection rates and the availability of testing, protective gear, community tracing and contact tracing.
Howard County Executive Calvin Ball announced religious services can resume with fewer than 10 people beginning Friday evening. Ball also will allow curbside pickup or delivery by many retail businesses and manufacturing firms to reopen. Barbershops and beauty salons can reopen with one customer at a time in the shop.
“We are still working towards many of the building blocks needed for additional reopening,” Ball said in a statement, "but we feel as though some limited retail and outdoor activities can resume safely at this time.”
Meanwhile, in less dense Harford County, Republican Executive Barry Glassman said the county will open as much as allowable.
Under the plans that Hogan unveiled Wednesday, manufacturing, retail, haircuts and worship services may resume with certain limitations beginning at 5 p.m. Friday. Retail shops and churches are allowed to only allow in 50% of their capacity, for example.
Hogan, a Republican, said the plan “empowers individual county leaders to make decisions regarding Stage One reopenings in their jurisdictions.”
Carroll County commissioners unanimously voted Thursday to proceed with the governor’s first-stage reopening guidance, encouraging county residents to continue following health guidelines. Commission members agreed to send a letter to Hogan asking him to allow restaurants with outdoor seating to reopen.
The switch from a statewide to a regional approach concerns some local leaders, who say residents might flock to areas where restrictions are lifted and end up spreading the virus.
“I can’t stop people from getting in their cars and going anywhere, and that’s the problem, the reason why we should all be doing the same thing,” Young said.
There are roughly 3,500 confirmed cases in Baltimore, and more than 180 residents have died. Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa said officials will only lift the stay-at-home order when the city hits certain benchmarks related to testing and contact tracing.
“We’ve already seen that some countries who reopen too early have had to quickly reinstate stay-at-home orders due to new outbreaks of COVID-19,” she said. “Here in Baltimore, we cannot afford to make the mistake of opening up too early.”
Dzirasa said the city needs to have the capacity to test between 2,700 to 2,800 people per day, and to have less than 10% of those tests come back positive for COVID-19. Last week, the city averaged 571 tests per day, and about one in five of those tests were positive.
Officials said all testing resources came from the local health department and city hospitals.
“Until we have received more test kits from the state, it’s very difficult to gather the accurate information necessary to plan for a safe reopening of the city,” Dzirasa said.
Hogan’s spokesman Mike Ricci said the governor recently told county leaders that he will set aside a third of the next federal shipment of testing supplies, including swabs and transport media, for local jurisdictions.
“We are happy to share those resources with the city,” Ricci wrote in an email.
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Hogan’s announcement Wednesday left local leaders with many questions — how will you enforce a business operating at 50% capacity, for example — and not much time to seek answers.
“I don’t think it’s helpful," Young’s spokesman Lester Davis said, “to come out with drastic shifts in position and put those into effect essentially in the equivalent of 48 hours later.”
The state’s top lawmakers also expressed concern about what they say is a lack of key information being shared by Hogan as he authorized steps toward reopening.
Senate President Bill Ferguson and House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones wrote to Hogan Thursday, asking 15 questions about topics ranging from testing availability to the hiring of contact tracers.
“Without a robust testing, tracing, and isolation system in place, there is little doubt that any easing of restrictions will lead to additional COVID-19 cases,” they wrote. “The ensuing spike will only serve to prolong the human and economic devastation being felt by Maryland families, small businesses, and our state and local governments.”