Starting Saturday, Marylanders no longer need to wear masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in most settings, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Friday evening.
Masks still will be required on public transportation and in schools, airports, day care centers and health care facilities, such as hospitals and doctors’ offices. Local governments and individual businesses can opt to keep mask requirements in place.
Baltimore City announced that local mask requirements would remain in place indoors and at outdoor venues such as Camden Yards or the Pimlico Race Course until the city reaches a higher level of vaccination; however, the city said it would match the state’s earlier decision to relax capacity restrictions starting Saturday.
Most local officials elsewhere quickly signaled that they would follow Hogan’s lead in dropping mask requirements, including Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties.
The end of the broad mask mandate applies to all Marylanders, whether vaccinated or not, everywhere there aren’t tighter local rules in place. However, the Republican governor said he strongly encourages anyone age 2 or older who is not vaccinated to continue wearing a mask indoors, as well as outdoors when they can’t keep physically distanced from others.
“Our long, hard-fought battle over the worst of the global pandemic in nearly a century is finally nearing an end,” Hogan said.
The rules about face coverings have changed quickly over the course of just a few days, potentially sowing confusion about who should still wear a mask and when.
On Wednesday, Hogan set a target of having 70% of adults with at least one vaccine shot before lifting Maryland’s order requiring masks in indoor public places. As of Friday, 65.6% of adults in the state had reached that status.
Then, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday that it would be OK for people who are fully vaccinated to ditch their masks, indoors and outdoors. The CDC continues to recommend that unvaccinated people wear masks, and masks are required for everyone on planes, trains and boats.
That led to Hogan’s announcement on Friday.
But instead of ordering businesses and officials to sort out who is or isn’t vaccinated — a challenge Hogan called “a logistical nightmare” — the governor said he decided to keep a single set of rules for all Marylanders and drop mask requirements in nearly every setting.
“If you haven’t been vaccinated yet, go get your shot,” Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman said while announcing that his county would follow the governor’s lead. “We need a summer surge in vaccinations to prevent a fall surge in cases.”
Howard County Executive Calvin Ball echoed Pittman.
“I strongly encourage residents who have not yet been fully vaccinated to continue wearing masks until they have received their vaccine. It’s never been easier to get vaccinated...,” he said. “Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect you and your loved ones.”
Baltimore City, where nearly 40% of residents 16 and older are fully vaccinated, did not say what the higher level of vaccination needs to be to relax masking restrictions.
“Masking works,” Mayor Brandon Scott and Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said in a joint statement. “It has been proven to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Public health experts agree that disease transmission is much more likely in indoor spaces, especially when masks aren’t not worn.”
Dr. Peter Beilenson, a former Baltimore health commissioner, said that based on data about COVID-19, vaccinated people who are unmasked don’t pose a threat to others or the community. They are highly unlikely to get sick or pass the disease to others.
“I really think people should have the benefit once they are vaccinated,” he said.
But, he said, since the country has not reached so-called herd immunity — which estimates suggest would require roughly 80% of the population to get vaccinated — there is still a threat to people who are unvaccinated from going maskless. And such people may not continue wearing masks and distancing socially once an order is lifted.
“If you could trust that everybody who has not been vaccinated continues to wear a mask, this is 100% fine,” Beilenson said. “But I’m not sure you can do that based on our most recent history.”
The risk is that the unvaccinated get infected and continue passing COVID-19 to others, perpetuating the pandemic. Vaccines have proven extremely effective at preventing serious illness or death from the virus but appear less effective at preventing infections altogether.
The other risk is that, given the opportunity, the virus continues to mutate and a more dangerous strain evolves and threatens even those who are vaccinated.
“The bottom line is that with 55% or so vaccinated, 45% are still at risk,” he said.
“I’m worried about the 55-year-old smoker who is not vaccinated who now feels he can go around without a mask and without distancing. He goes to a house party with 30 people and half aren’t vaccinated and the virus is spread around,” Beilenson said. “It’s dangerous for the individual and others who can’t be vaccinated. But it’s a longer-term problem too. This is likely to become a chronic infectious disease.”
During a briefing before the governor’s announcement, vaccine expert Bill Moss of the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, said people need to use their best judgment about mask-wearing, especially around relatives who are unable or unwilling to be vaccinated.
“We’re obviously in a position where not everyone is eligible for the vaccine,” said Moss, executive director of the International Vaccine Access Center at Hopkins. “A lot about masking will come down to personal decisions about risks and benefits. I hope people continue to wear masks in certain situations, regardless of CDC guidelines.”
Brian Castrucci, president and CEO of the Bethesda-based de Beaumont Foundation, a public health-focused charitable organization, also worried that dropping mask requirements could raise risks for people less protected by vaccines, including the immunocompromised, and those with allergies that leave them unable to get the shot.
Breaking News Alerts
“Those are the folks who now can’t get vaccinated, or could and could not get protected, sitting next to people who may not be wearing masks,” Castrucci said. “The choice to wear your seat belt impacts you; the choice to not wear your mask impacts other people.”
Most of the state’s restrictions on businesses also are lifting Saturday, following an announcement from Hogan earlier in the week.
Indoor and outdoor venues — including concert venues, convention facilities and professional sports stadiums — will be allowed to resume normal operations and operate at full capacity. Restaurants and bars can resume normal operations, including allowing people to stand in bar areas. Tables won’t need to be spaced 6 feet apart and barriers between booths can come down.
Most local governments in the Baltimore area agreed to go along with the loosened business restrictions, with the city joining Friday.
Even as pandemic-imposed restrictions are being significantly eased and vaccinations continue, people in Maryland are still contracting the coronavirus. As of Friday, 680 people were being treated in Maryland hospitals, including 191 who are in intensive care. The lowest point of hospitalizations came last Sept. 20, when 281 people were hospitalized. The state reported 512 new infections Friday.
Of Maryland’s approximately 6 million residents, 2.5 million — or about 42% — are fully vaccinated, meaning they’ve received both doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccines or the Johnson & Johnson single-shot immunization.
Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo and Baltimore Sun Media reporter Ana Faguy contributed to this article.