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Maryland COVID reopening: State to lift limits at restaurants, stores; large venues to allow 50% capacity

Gov. Larry Hogan announces the lifting of capacity limits in restaurants and large indoor and outdoor venues at 50 percent capacity, while keeping mask mandate.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced that he’s easing many coronavirus restrictions in the state beginning at 5 p.m. Friday, including lifting capacity limits at restaurants and opening up large indoor and outdoor venues to 50% capacity, while keeping in effect the state’s mask mandate.

Statewide orders currently limit bars and restaurants to operating at no more than 50% capacity both indoors and outdoors, although some counties in the state imposed stricter local limits.

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The Republican governor on Tuesday afternoon said state rules soon will allow bars and restaurants to welcome as many customers as they like, as long as patrons remain seated and socially distanced. People will not be permitted to crowd around the bar.

Hogan told reporters that local leaders still have the power to maintain or impose tighter local rules, something aides to the governor reiterated after the governor’s news conference.

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But changes in the text of Hogan’s executive order Tuesday from the previous version blindsided local officials, leaving the leaders of many of the state’s biggest jurisdictions scrambling to consult with attorneys to understand whether the edict might upend some or all of their local public health rules.

Previous executive orders from Hogan, including one dated Feb. 23, explicitly stated local governments had the power to enact stricter rules. Hogan’s latest order, however, declared such rules “null and void” come 5 p.m. Friday.

Michael Ricci, a Hogan spokesman, said Maryland counties have the power in state and local law to issue public health orders. Ricci didn’t respond Tuesday night to questions about whether any particular local restrictions would be affected by the order, or if the governor consulted with mayors or county leaders before drafting it.

“State law does grant local jurisdictions some powers to take actions that are more restrictive than the state is. But my advice would be that they should follow the state guidance and get in line,” Hogan said at the news conference. “It’s been very confusing with a patchwork of different people changing rules or not being in alignment with one another.”

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, a Democrat, said he and other local officials across the state heard nothing about the changes before Hogan’s remarks.

“As usual, the county executives are texting each other saying, ‘Anybody know what the governor is going to say today?’ And nobody ever does,” Pittman said.

Chris Trumbauer, an adviser to Pittman, said because the county’s latest emergency order takes some authority from the governor’s past executive orders, the county’s order will be void Friday and county officials are discussing whether they need to replace it with a different local order to address the change.

Pittman said he will check with county lawyers and the county health officer, Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman, before taking any action.

Baltimore County officials are “currently evaluating all the announcements made today and will identify next steps after consulting with our public health team,” said Sean Naron, a spokesman for Democratic County Executive Johnny Olszewski.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, a Democrat, said in a statement that he’ll work with city attorneys and the city health department to “determine the best path forward.” Scott said reopening plans in Baltimore would continue to be shaped by “the direction of health care professionals and local data.”

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball, a Democrat, said his staff, too, was working to interpret the order.

“We are currently reviewing the revised executive order to understand its full implications,” Ball said. “We will continue to evaluate our metrics and we remain committed to making data-informed and people- driven decisions to keep Howard County residents safe.”

Officials in Carroll and Harford counties said they planned to ease restrictions to the same degree as the state.

Barring stricter restrictions locally, Hogan’s order also will lift capacity restrictions on stores, houses of worship, casinos, gyms and other indoor recreational facilities. State rules also will allow venues such as theaters, concert halls, wedding venues, racetracks and stadiums to operate at half-capacity, both indoors and out.

That could open the door for fans to fill at least some of the seats at Camden Yards for the Baltimore Orioles’ April 8 home opener or filter into Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore for the Preakness Stakes, which has not yet been scheduled but is typically run the third Saturday in May.

But the questions about whether local officials would — or even could — continue setting stricter guidelines meant the implications of Hogan’s move remained unclear.

“The time is right” to lift restrictions, said Hogan, adding that his administration has balanced keeping residents healthy and building back the economy. “Our health metrics are great and it’s time to get our economy going.”

However, Hogan cautioned, “the virus is still with us” and said he wanted to stress “that outside is safer than inside” for activities.

Hogan’s announcement also took some public health experts by surprise.

“Wow,” said Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University in Washington and a former Baltimore health commissioner, upon hearing about the orders. “I’m glad that he kept in place the mask mandate.”

“There is going to be risk in reopening so quickly, especially when the vast majority of Marylanders are still unvaccinated,” Wen said.

Just under 10% of Marylanders are fully vaccinated, according to the state health department.

Dr. Robert Redfield, the former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who now serves as a Hogan adviser, joined the governor for Tuesday’s news conference.

“The health consequences of prolonged isolation have been well documented now, especially the impact on mental health,” Redfield said. “It’s been shown that when things are done with vigilance, as the governor discussed, in partnership with the public and private sector, we can safely reopen.”

He lauded Hogan for keeping in place “the powerful mitigation tools we have to confront COVID-19: masking, social distancing, hand hygiene and avoiding crowds, particularly in indoor spaces.”

Dr. Peter Beilenson, a former Baltimore health commissioner and Howard County health officer, said the lifting of restrictions has come “too quickly” and implies the pandemic’s grip has loosened.

He said places like bars were proven to be breeding grounds for virus transmission and can be “quite dangerous” for people who are not vaccinated.

“We don’t have herd immunity yet,” Beilenson said. “If you reduce restrictions too early, what’s the point of getting immunized? People won’t feel like they have to get the vaccine.”

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While other governors in the country, like those of Texas and Mississippi, were criticized by public health experts for recently withdrawing their state’s mask mandates, Hogan emphasized Maryland’s mask mandate remained. Facial coverings are required at all indoor facilities open to the public, like grocery stores and fitness centers, and the public areas of private and public businesses, as well as on mass transportation.

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Masks have been touted by public health officials as critical to preventing further spread of the virus, which as of Tuesday had infected 388,666 people in Maryland and killed 7,806.

Three more contagious strains of the coronavirus have been detected in Maryland and have been spreading. Public health officials expect to continue to identify more cases of the variants first discovered in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil as the state bolsters scientific lab testing for those strains.

However, Hogan and his health officials touted the decline over the past weeks of several metrics used to track the disease, including the number of hospitalizations and the state’s testing positivity rate.

Meanwhile, the state continues to ramp up its vaccination campaign. More than 1 million people have received their initial immunizations.

Baltimore Sun reporters Meredith Cohn, Taylor DeVille, Hallie Miller and Emily Opilo and Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Wayne Carter, Chase Cook, Ana Faguy, Danielle Ohl and Olivia Sanchez contributed to this article.

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