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Maryland Gov. Hogan further relaxes coronavirus restrictions on indoor dining; Baltimore City and Anne Arundel will hold back

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan issued an order Friday allowing restaurants to offer expanded indoor dining starting Monday, but not all local governments in the Baltimore region intend to go along with it.

Hogan announced his decision to increase capacity limits to 75% after visiting bars and restaurants in downtown Annapolis, where many have expanded onto the sidewalks and streets to accommodate diners while their indoor operations are limited due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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He made no mention in his announcement of what public health metrics were considered in making the decision.

The state calculates its positivity rate for the past week as 3.21%, while Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus resource center, which uses a different calculation, puts the state above 6%. The World Health Organization recommends governments see two weeks of positivity less than 5% before expanding allowed activities.

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In his news release and social media posts, Hogan did, however, tout Maryland Restaurant Week, which started Friday and continues through next week with many restaurants offering deals in hopes of spurring business.

Asked for the governor’s public health reasoning, Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci pointed to declining hospitalizations and ICU admissions in the two weeks since the state moved into Stage 3 of its reopening plan, which allowed for virtually all activities to resume in some fashion, including indoor movie theaters and entertainment venues.

Ricci also noted that Virginia allows 100% capacity for indoor dining with limitations and Delaware allows 60% capacity.

But other data indicates caution around restaurants, said Emily Scarr, director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study last week that found adults who tested positive for coronavirus were twice as likely to have eaten at a restaurant in the previous two weeks, compared to adults who tested negative.

“Health professionals have warned that indoor dining is a high-risk activity and economists have made clear that the economy will not recover until we get the virus under control,” Scarr said.

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a former state health secretary now with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, questioned why indoor dining is a priority.

“Evidence is growing stronger about the role of indoor dining in spreading the coronavirus,” Sharfstein said. “Given where we are in Maryland, I’d rather see a push to lower transmission so schools can open in person for young students than a relaxation of restrictions that could lead to greater spread.”

Through Friday, the state has recorded 119,062 confirmed infections, including 543 new cases. A total of 3,724 people in Maryland have died from the coronavirus since March, though the state has recorded single-digit death counts in 13 of the last 14 days, including seven more Friday.

Maryland hospitals were treating 347 patients for the coronavirus on Friday, with 84 who were in intensive care. All told, more than 15,000 people in Maryland have been hospitalized for the coronavirus since March.

The governor’s announcement that restaurants could potentially go up to 75% has the industry “pleased and very excited,” said Marshall Weston, president and CEO of the Restaurant Association of Maryland.

“With the cool weather upon us, many restaurants were concerned that their outdoor dining was going to be taken away from them,” he said. “And now, this provides a lifeline for them to survive the fall.”

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Weston added: ”The governor making this announcement and proclamation as part of Maryland Restaurant Week shows how important restaurants are to every community and the overall economy, and we thank the governor for recognizing how important restaurants are to all of us."

As with Hogan’s past orders, local governments retain the authority to decide whether to go along with the relaxed restrictions.

Harford and Howard counties were the only jurisdictions in the Baltimore area to immediately jump on board with expanded indoor dining.

“We support Harford’s great restaurants and encourage all Marylanders to visit during Maryland Restaurant Week and beyond,” Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, a Republican, said in a statement.

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball cited the county’s low positivity rate and ample hospital capacity in deciding to follow Hogan’s order.

Ball, a Democrat, said in a statement the expansion would be a positive development for the struggling restaurant industry.

“I encourage residents of Howard County to continue to patronize our restaurants but adhere to preventive measures — like washing our hands, wearing masks, and physically distancing whenever possible,” Ball said.

Carroll County can’t officially make a decision until the county commissioners vote, and their next meeting isn’t until next Thursday. But Board of Commissioners President Stephen Wantz said he expects they’ll vote in favor of aligning with the governor’s order, as they have in the past.

Wantz, a Republican, said he encourages Carroll restaurants to begin seating at 75% capacity Monday, and the commissioners will vote later in the week to make it official.

“I’m 100% sure that my colleagues would agree that this is something we would go along with,” he said.

Baltimore City — which has consistently taken a more cautious approach to reopening than the state — only moved last week to open indoor dining to half-capacity.

Hogan held an in-person meeting with Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, a Democrat, about escalating violence in the city just two days ago. He did not give city officials a heads-up that he would loosen restrictions.

“At this time, we simply do not have enough data to responsibly increase indoor dining capacity within the city,” James Bentley, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said in a statement. “We will continue to monitor the data and will make adjustments when it is appropriate.”

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Anne Arundel County will not go forward with expanded indoor dining, said Chris Trumbauer, a senior advisor to County Executive Steuart Pittman, a Democrat.

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Restaurant operations have been a subject of ongoing “rigorous discussion” in a coronavirus work group that advises the county executive, Trumbauer said. But Pittman determined it would be safest to continue to stick with a limit of 50% capacity indoors and a closing time of 10 p.m.

“Our health officer strongly feels that this is a place where spread can happen,” Trumbauer said.

Anne Arundel is taking another step toward reopening, allowing movie theaters to reopen starting Sept. 25. Hogan allowed movies to reopen two weeks ago, but Anne Arundel initially held back.

Baltimore County officials said they would take time to consider their next step.

“We’re evaluating the announcement made late today and will identify our next steps after consulting with our public health team,” said Sean Naron, a spokesman for County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat.

Restaurants and bars currently are allowed a maximum of 50% capacity for indoor dining. Buffets are not allowed and patrons can only be served while seated.

Baltimore Sun Media reporters Meredith Cohn, Mary Grace Keller, Ben Leonard, Wilborn Nobles III, Sameer Rao and Talia Richman contributed to this article.

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