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Gov. Hogan mandates masks in stores, on transit; warns against quick end to measures to contain the coronavirus

Governor Larry Hogan signed an executive order that will go into effect on Saturday, that everyone must wear a mask in retail stores.

Gov. Larry Hogan is requiring masks or face coverings to be worn in stores and on public transit beginning Saturday, as Maryland continues to face the coronavirus pandemic.

The order, which Hogan announced Wednesday, comes on the heels of several local governments enacting mask requirements or guidelines, including Baltimore. Cloth masks, homemade masks and bandannas meet the requirements.

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The order also requires stores and carryout restaurants that remain open to mark 6-foot distances for people to stand in line, sanitize the handles of shopping carts and baskets, and allow workers to wash their hands every 30 minutes.

“While this order is an important step in our immediate efforts to protect public health and safety, the wearing of masks is also something that we may all have to become more accustomed to in order to safely reopen our state," Hogan said during a news conference at the State House in Annapolis. Hogan and his staff members continued their practice of wearing masks at the event, removing them only to speak at the podium.

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Hogan said Maryland is beginning to see initial signs that social distancing is working. Hospitalization rates are starting to show possible signs of stabilizing.

FutureCare Lochearn, a nursing home in Northwest Baltimore, reported 129 cases among its residents and 41 cases among its staff, making it one of the largest outbreaks in the country.

The statewide death toll shot up Wednesday to 413, including 47 deaths of people who were confirmed to have the virus and another 64 deaths that were likely due to the virus, state officials said.

Still, Hogan sees hope that the state’s measures are working.

“Because of early and aggressive actions, and because of the extraordinary sacrifice of Marylanders, we’re now in a position to move from containment and mitigation to plan the gradual rollout of our recovery phase,” the Republican governor said.

Hogan said such plans would be laid out in greater detail next week, though he touched on four necessary steps: greatly expanding the state’s capacity to test people for the disease, with a goal of 10,000 tests a day; increasing hospitals’ capacity to treat COVID-19 patients; boosting the state’s supply of personal protective equipment; and building a 1,000-person operation to trace the contacts of sick people.

“There are some very real reasons for hope and optimism right now, and there is clearly a light at the end of this tunnel, but exactly how and when we will get to that light is going to be up to each and every one of us,” Hogan said.

Hogan said his team has discussed for weeks how to reopen businesses and institutions because he expects it to be a difficult process.

Asked when the restrictions might be lifted, Hogan said, “I think everybody would like to know when we’re going to get back to a normal life.

“The worst possible thing we could do is to take actions too quickly and then have that spike so we look like New York. ... We are starting to slow that growth slightly. We have not yet reached the peak. Now would be the worst time to take our foot off the accelerator.”

Pressure to start lifting restrictions has been beginning to grow among residents suffering economically due to lost jobs and frustrated to be stuck at home. Two groups of governors — one in the Northeast, the other on the West Coast — forged pacts earlier this week to work together on easing restrictions and reopening their economies.

Maryland is not part of such a pact, but Hogan is in regular contact with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser. Bowser has extended the District’s stay-at-home orders and school closures through May 15. Hogan said he would meet Friday with Northam and Bowser.

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And earlier Wednesday, a handful of state lawmakers said during a meeting of a coronavirus work group that they hoped Maryland soon would turn to planning a way forward.

“This is just as much a plague on our economy as it is a health pandemic,” said Sen. Stephen Hershey of the Eastern Shore, the second-ranking Republican in Senate. “It’s time we start looking forward.”

One of the governor’s precursors to easing restrictions is to increase contact tracing. Currently, 250 people are doing such work. The state wants to have at least 1,000 workers dedicated to that effort.

Fran Phillips, deputy secretary for public health, said 100% of the state’s health investigators are now engaged in tracing COVID-19 cases. She said the circle of contacts for coronavirus patients has become smaller because Marylanders are cooperating with social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

Phillips said more than 800 Marylanders have voluntarily registered as having recovered from coronavirus, more than the state’s confirmed number of people who have recovered.

The state also needs to significantly increase the number of tests it conducts.

″We believe we’re on track to try to get there," Hogan said of the goal of 10,000 daily tests.

Asked about President Donald Trump’s comments about outranking governors regarding when to reopen the economy, Hogan said an “interesting dynamic” played out over the past 24 hours. He believes Trump, a Republican, reversed himself by the end of the day Tuesday.

There are certain federal guidelines states are bound by, Hogan said, but “I think the governors are going to make their own decisions within the guidelines."

Hogan said he has asked the Trump administration to support the governors and states, and asked for help in breaking a “logjam” in the U.S. Senate for aid to the states.

Hogan has asked the federal government to send $500 billion to state governments to help fill gaping holes in budgets caused by extra expenses to fight the pandemic and sharp drops in tax collection.

One worst-case scenario shows Maryland alone could lose $2.8 billion by the end of June due to diminished collection of sales and income taxes.

“Without sufficient federal investment, we will be unable to do all the things we’re being asked to do and states could be forced to confront the prospect of devastating budget reductions to essential services,” Hogan said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Talia Richman contributed to this article.

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