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Maryland relaxes more coronavirus restrictions, will allow all businesses to open as it enters Stage Three of recovery plan

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced that the state is ready to entering into stage 3 of reopening, starting Friday at 5pm.

Marylanders soon may be able to go to the movies and to see live shows, after Gov. Larry Hogan announced Tuesday that all businesses — including entertainment venues — can reopen starting Friday.

With the announcement, the Republican governor moved the state partially into the third and final stage of his administration’s plan for relaxing restrictions that were put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

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Hogan said at his State House news conference that the time was right to relax restrictions.

“While it is absolutely critical to remain vigilant as we battle this deadly virus, it is also important that we continue to fight to protect and improve our economy and the health of our small business community and our struggling Maryland families by continuing to push to safely to reopen our economy and to get more people safely back to work,” Hogan said.

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As with prior reopening steps, local government officials have the authority to keep more restrictive rules in place. Leaders in Baltimore City and several surrounding counties said Tuesday they will need more time to weigh their options. After earlier announcements, local leaders typically took a few days to make their decisions.

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, a Democrat, plans to address the governor’s order at a news conference Wednesday morning. Young’s spokesman, James Bentley, said city officials were not briefed in advance of Hogan’s announcement.

“The mayor wants to be thoughtful about moving into the next phase and is focusing on harm reduction with the holiday weekend ahead,” Bentley said.

Executives in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties said Tuesday they will need to discuss metrics and consult with county health officers before issuing decisions. Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman said an announcement may come by Thursday evening.

“It is bad timing because we have our numbers increasing right now and we need to get a better understanding of why,” Pittman said. “Even though we don’t get any advance notification and we are not consulted, we appreciate that it is up to each county to decide based on their own metrics when it’s right to move forward.”

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said his county will move forward with Hogan’s planned reopening Friday. The Carroll County Board of Commissioners is expected to take up the matter Thursday.

“Our message has been clear throughout this entire pandemic. We have done what the governor has told us we should do,” said Stephen Wantz, the Republican president of the Board of Commissioners.

Under the next step in the state’s reopening process, movie theaters and live entertainment can reopen at 50% capacity, or up to 100 people at indoor venues and 250 at outdoor venues.

“All the states around us have done this already,” Hogan said of reopening movie theaters.

Kelly Schulz, the state’s secretary of commerce, said the state has worked with business stakeholders in developing reopening plans.

“All Maryland businesses now can safely reopen,” she said.

Hogan’s announcement doesn’t exactly fit the road map released in late April. The riskiest activities were not supposed to resume until there was a vaccine or “effective therapeutics” to treat people sick with COVID-19. Those activities include large-scale gatherings, “high capacity” bars, entertainment venues, regular visitation policies at hospitals and large religious gatherings.

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Asked about the inconsistency, Hogan said the plan has been “evolving.”

“Things have changed since then,” Hogan said.

Within minutes of Hogan’s announcement, the Senator Theatre in Baltimore announced a showing of Christopher Nolan’s film “Tenet” for 7 p.m. Friday.

“Oh, my God,” said Kathleen Lyon, who co-owns the Senator with her father, James “Buzz” Cusack. “I’m hyperventilating. It has just been so difficult to have these buildings empty.”

Lyon said the Charles Theater, also owned by her family, doesn’t have a date to reopen because it doesn’t have films to show. She hopes that will change soon.

“We are so ready to get the popcorn popping and the marquee on and to see our wonderful customers again,” she said.

Hogan made the announcement shortly before the three-day Labor Day weekend that traditionally marks the end of summer and the start of a new school year — a weekend often marked with family trips and cookouts. He reminded Marylanders to remain cautious, noting that 41% of those who tested positive for the coronavirus and spoke to contact tracers said they had participated in family gatherings before their diagnosis.

For much of the summer, few state-level restrictions had changed. Restaurants have been open with limited indoor and outdoor seating, most stores and businesses opened with restrictions, and some youth sports resumed. Houses of worship have been allowed to offer limited services.

Public schools, however, are starting the academic year with online learning instead of in-person classes — though Hogan has urged them to find ways to get children back in school buildings. Hogan criticized some school systems Tuesday for “basically saying the dog ate my homework” and not developing plans for any in-person classes.

Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University, said she is “extremely concerned” about Maryland entering Stage Three because the state is still in the middle of the pandemic and the virus is still “extremely contagious.”

”We’ve been able to keep the virus at bay because of social distancing measures,” said Wen, a former Baltimore Health Commissioner. “But when you remove them, it’s very hard to imagine that we aren’t going to see a spike in cases when we have all these indoor settings.”

She said indoor gatherings where there are many people who cannot physically distance remain the highest risk to transmit the virus and that she hopes there are “very clear metrics” about when to dial back the reopening.

”We need to send a clear message that we are still in the middle of a pandemic, which is the biggest public health crisis of our lifetime,” she said. “Just because something is open and you can go to it doesn’t mean you should.”

Hogan’s “Maryland Strong: Roadmap to Recovery” plan does not include specific benchmarks for moving from one stage to the next. Rather, it sets broad goals in four areas: testing capacity, contact tracing, supply of personal protective gear and hospital capacity.

As the pandemic has worn on, some of those areas have improved in Maryland. Hospitalizations, for example, peaked at 1,711 in late April, compared with Tuesday’s report of 385 inpatients being treated for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Testing has expanded, as well, with more government and privately run sites around the state. On Tuesday, the state reported that more than 13,000 tests had been reported the day before. On one day in August, more than 40,000 tests were performed.

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To help with contact tracing — which involves identifying people who have been in contact with those who test positive — Hogan announced Tuesday that the state was opting into a phone app exposure notification program run by Apple and Google.

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The systems are designed to automatically alert people if they might have been exposed to someone with the virus. Those who use iPhones will be able to opt into the system without an app, while people with Android phones will need to download an app.

The governor declined to answer questions about the app Tuesday saying he did not have more information about the program.

Baltimore Sun reporters Mary Carole McCauley, Talia Richman, McKenna Oxenden and Wilborn P. Nobles III, Baltimore Sun Media reporters Mary Grace Keller and Olivia Sanchez, and The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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