As the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage across the country and hospitalizations climb in Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan issued orders Wednesday expanding mask-wearing restrictions and advising against travel to certain states.
Under Hogan’s actions, the state continued its pause of its reopening plan, issuing new guidance but not significantly adding or rolling back restrictions.
As of 5 p.m. Friday, everyone older than 5 must wear masks inside all public buildings, including restaurants, houses of worship, gyms, casinos, stores and office buildings. That order will supersede an April requirement for masks inside grocery stores, pharmacies and on public transit.
Masks also will now be required outdoors whenever it is not possible to maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet from others.
Speaking at a news conference in Annapolis, the Republican governor said expanding the mask guidance was “fact-based, apolitical and solidly grounded in science. While it can be an inconvenience, especially in the heat, wearing a mask is the single best mitigation strategy that we have to fight the virus.”
At Hogan’s request, state health officials issued an advisory cautioning Maryland residents not to travel to states where the percent of positive results of coronavirus tests is greater than 10%. Those states are Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Carolina and Texas.
Anyone who does travel to those states is encouraged to get a coronavirus test when they’re back and quarantine until receiving results. The same applies to people coming to Maryland from any of the nine states.
Hogan said the travel guidance was “a public health advisory and not a ban. There are obvious reasons where people have to travel.”
Several other states have also enacted travel restrictions, requiring residents returning from states that are virus hot spots to quarantine for two weeks.
As Maryland’s tally of confirmed cases continued to climb, New York this month added Maryland to its list of states under a quarantine travel advisory. That means Marylanders are supposed to self-isolate for two weeks and get a test if they visit New York, Connecticut or New Jersey.
Hogan’s announcements came as the state continues to see an increase in new cases and hospitalizations.
It also comes as a number of other states have seen cases surge. Hogan said the federal government Tuesday identified 21 “red zone” states and that Maryland, which was not one of them, has “come too far together to lose the progress that we’ve made.”
In Washington, U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, chair of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, wrote Wednesday to the governors of Georgia, Florida and other states, urging them to employ more stringent protective measures.
Clyburn, a Carolina Democrat, said the Trump administration has failed to publicly call for science-based restrictions presented to its White House Coronavirus Task Force. The restrictions include requiring face masks, closing bars, and strictly limiting gatherings.
Questions have been raised about whether Major League Baseball players should be traveling through different states, particularly since a rash of coronavirus cases among the Miami Marlins suspended that team’s season. The Baltimore Orioles had been scheduled to play the Marlins this week, twice in Florida and twice in Maryland. The Orioles’ substitute opponent for their home opener Wednesday night was the New York Yankees.
Asked about the safety of allowing baseball to continue, Hogan said that with no fans present at games, there’s less risk.
“It seems as if Major League Baseball and the Orioles are trying to be very careful about a handful of players,” Hogan said. “They obviously took steps to stop the Marlins from playing because they tested them very carefully.”
In Maryland, Hogan said it was time for a “‘stop sign’ in further reopening plans” and that the state would not move into the next phase of reopening until it was “prudent” to do so.
“We do find ourselves at a fork in the road — a critical turning point — where we could either continue making progress, continue heading in the right direction, or we could ignore the warnings and spike back up,” Hogan said.
Hogan said it will continue to be up to local governments to enforce public health orders on wearing masks and limiting capacity at businesses. He said he would not commit state resources, such as state law enforcement officers, to help local governments.
Hogan said he would not seek to sanction local governments that don’t do sufficient enforcement.
“I hope people would just do their jobs,” he said.
Improvement in Maryland’s coronavirus numbers in the future would allow new activities such as full service at bars and restaurants, and the reopening of entertainment venues, such as movie theaters.
Hogan said contact tracing has shown that the No. 1 activity of Marylanders who have tested positive recently was attending family gatherings. The next highest on the list was house parties.
”For most of us, I think, there is a false sense of security when you’re spending time with family and friends,” the governor said. He volunteered that he’d experienced that, gathering on one occasion with extended family at Government House to watch movies and eat popcorn.
Hogan reiterated his support for a largely in-person election in November, with absentee ballot applications sent to all voters to allow them to request a vote-by-mail ballot. The governor has been criticized for not ordering that the ballots themselves be mailed to voters, as he ordered for June’s primary, and local elections officials have said they’re having trouble getting enough workers and sites to open every precinct.
Hogan questioned Wednesday why elections officials hadn’t yet mailed the absentee ballot applications following his instructions three weeks ago to carry out a traditional election. “I want to know why it’s not done,” he said.
Donna Duncan, an assistant deputy director for the Maryland State Board of Elections, said the applications are scheduled to be mailed Aug. 28. The state board must approve changes to the form at its Aug. 5 meeting, and the applications then need to be printed.
Hogan often touts the state’s positivity rate, which is the percentage of tests that come back positive. By the state’s calculations, Maryland’s seven-day average positivity rate is 4.77%. The daily rate for Wednesday was 5.85%.
Public health officials have indicated a sustained rate of less than 5% should be met before relaxing pandemic-related restrictions.
Meanwhile, the number of Marylanders being treated in a hospital has steadily increased the past two weeks. After hitting a low of 386 patients July 13, there were 571 patients reported in a hospital Wednesday, 126 of them in intensive care. Twenty new deaths were reported, bringing Maryland’s toll from the virus to 3,347 people.
The rising numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths have caused some local officials to pull back on allowable activities.
Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young put an end to indoor dining in Baltimore, while County Executive Steuart Pittman pulled the plug on indoor dining after 10 p.m. at Anne Arundel restaurants with liquor licenses. Both men are Democrats.
Before Hogan’s action Wednesday, Baltimore City and Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties had tightened mask rules, requiring them in all indoor public spaces and outdoors when social distancing isn’t possible. Baltimore City and Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties require masks starting at age 2.
Some pushed Hogan to go further than his actions Wednesday. The Maryland Public Interest Research Group said the governor’s moves were worth applauding, but urged him to again close nonessential businesses and limit restaurants to takeout service until Maryland’s positivity rate is less than 2% and there’s sufficient testing and contact tracing.
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“If we want to prevent a surge of new cases, people should stay home, going out only if they work in an essential service, need to get food and medicine, or to exercise and get fresh air,” Maryland PIRG Director Emily Scarr said in a statement.
Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a vice dean in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, called Hogan’s latest orders to combat the spread of coronavirus “small steps in the right direction.”
Sharfstein said he appreciates the new orders, but warned “we can’t stop here if things keep getting worse.” Maryland isn’t one of the “most intensely hit states,” he said, but he urged Hogan to consider expanded restrictions on bars, restaurants and large gatherings indoors.
“We don’t know for sure what’s going to happen in Maryland, but it could look like one of these other states,” said Sharfstein, a former state health secretary and Baltimore health commissioner.
Hogan expressed frustration that the current coronavirus relief package in the U.S. Senate “doesn’t even mention” a new round of funding directly to state and local governments. An initial congressional bill in March established a $150 billion fund for state, territorial, tribal and local governments. Maryland’s share was estimated at $2.3 billion.
”It’s fairly devastating if we don’t get this [new] funding,” Hogan said.
Baltimore Sun reporters Phil Davis and Emily Opilo contributed to this article.