If Marylanders keep getting vaccinated, they soon could be allowed to ditch their masks indoors, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Wednesday.
Once at least 70% of adults in the state get at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, Hogan said Maryland will lift the requirement to wear masks in indoor public spaces. According to the state’s data, Maryland recently surpassed having 65% of adults with at least one shot on board.
The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines require two shots given a few weeks apart for full effectiveness, while the Johnson & Johnson inoculation takes just one dose.
The Republican governor’s threshold for lifting the mask mandate is statewide, so even areas with low vaccination rates will be able to go along with mask-free dining, shopping and working at offices and other businesses once highly vaccinated areas help reach the threshold. The eventual lifting of the requirement will also apply to schools, although school districts and businesses can opt to keep mask rules in place.
Hogan noted during a news conference outside the governor’s mansion that his 70% goal is in line with Democratic President Joe Biden’s target of having 70% of American adults on the way to being vaccinated by July 4. Biden’s goal, however, has not been formally tied to a lifting of restrictions.
“Maryland is vaccinating at a faster rate than the nation and faster than most other states,” Hogan said.
That 70% threshold doesn’t take into account children, most of who are not yet eligible for the shot. They remain capable of spreading the virus and falling ill from COVID-19. Seventy percent of the adult population, people 18 and older, represents less than 55% of Maryland’s total population of more than 6 million people.
Public health officials and government leaders have pushed for the nation to achieve “herd immunity” — a point where enough people have been vaccinated against the virus or recovered from it that the virus finds fewer people to infect. Some health experts believe that threshold is 80% of the total population. Others are starting to doubt whether herd immunity is possible with an increasing number of highly contagious variants of the coronavirus spreading.
Dr. Leana Wen, a former Baltimore health commissioner who is a public health professor at George Washington University in Washington, expressed reservations about lifting the indoor mask order.
“What I wish the CDC would say — and the governor, as well — is that those fully vaccinated can be around others without restriction, including masking or distancing,” Wen said, referring to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “That includes offices, restaurants and theaters.”
“If there are people of unknown vaccination status, with this high level of community transmission as we have in Baltimore, indoor mask mandates should still be in place,” she said.
Instead of relying on increased vaccinations to relax indoor mask rules, a better metric would be the number of new infections, said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“That’s because none of us — not even those of us who are vaccinated — should be looking to run into the virus without a mask on,” Sharfstein said. “With hundreds of new infections a day in Maryland, it still makes sense to wear a mask indoors when around people who are not vaccinated.”
The state has been preparing to vaccinate 12- to 15-year-olds, now that the Pfizer vaccine is authorized for younger children in the U.S. As of Thursday, vaccination locations in Maryland will be ready to vaccinate this group of younger children.
Dr. Jinlene Chan, Maryland’s deputy health secretary, said it’s important to vaccinate children because immunizations are part of a tool box “to help us turn the corner on COVID-19.” She noted that with new variants of COVID-19 developing, it is more important than ever to get as many people as possible vaccinated.
She also said the proportion of infected people who are children and teenagers is growing, in part because so many adults have been vaccinated.
Regardless of vaccination rates, Hogan is also rolling back most of Maryland’s remaining pandemic restrictions, effective Saturday.
Indoor and outdoor venues — including concert venues, convention facilities and professional team stadiums — will be allowed to resume normal operations and operate at full capacity, though mask rules apply for the time being.
Restaurants and bars will also be able to resume normal operations, including allowing people to stand in bar areas. Tables will no longer need to be spaced 6 feet apart and barriers between booths can come down.
“Every business in Maryland will be able to open at 100% with no restrictions” as of Saturday, Hogan said.
“The only thing that will remain in place, for the time being, is the indoor mask requirement,” the governor said.
He urged unvaccinated Marylanders to get their shots as quickly as possible, as the fastest way “to get rid of our damn masks.” People who do not get vaccinated are slowing economic recovery and putting themselves and others at risk, he said.
“There is simply no excuse for putting off your vaccination any longer,” Hogan said.
Local governments have the authority to keep stricter restrictions in place. And individual businesses can require masks for employees and customers, even once the statewide mask order is lifted.
Earlier Wednesday, Democratic Mayor Brandon M. Scott announced a rolling back of restrictions in Baltimore, which has maintained stricter limits than those set by the state. Starting Monday, city restaurants, stores and houses of worship can go to full capacity. Some other establishments will be limited to 50%, including live performance venues, movie theaters, convention facilities and banquet halls. The Baltimore Orioles are holding for now at their voluntary 25% capacity cap at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Other local government officials began to evaluate their next steps in the wake of Hogan’s announcement. Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, a Republican, quickly said his county would stay in step with the state’s changes.
Glassman acknowledged, however, that vaccination rates have tapered off in Harford and said the county will continue to urge people to get their shots. He thinks that about a third of the county’s population is waiting to get vaccinated and another third is adamantly opposed to being vaccinated.
“We have got to continue to encourage folks to get their vaccine,” he said. “We can only keep progressing if we’re building up that immunity in the county.”
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, a Democrat, said his county would also go along with the state’s easing of restrictions Saturday.
“We believe that our low case rates will continue through the summer,” Pittman said in a statement. “But the only effective way to prevent a fall surge in cases will be a summer surge in vaccinations.”
Howard County Executive Calvin Ball, a Democrat, said his county also will align with the new state orders.
“I encourage every Howard County resident to get vaccinated if they have not already and encourage their family to get their shot — vaccination works best when we do it together. This is our chance to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and get back to normal,” Ball said in a statement.
Hogan announced the cruise terminal in Baltimore will be allowed to reopen Saturday, and cruise companies are working with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to resume trips.
Hogan also directed the state Department of Labor to work with federal officials on reinstating a requirement that people receiving unemployment benefits must actively look for a job. That requirement was suspended early in the pandemic.
Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn and Baltimore Sun Media reporters Brooks DuBose, Ana Faguy and James Whitlow contributed to this article.