Maryland remains under a stay-at-home order with schools and many businesses closed, but Gov. Larry Hogan announced a slight easing of restrictions Wednesday on outdoor recreation and nonemergency medical procedures.
The governor amended his stay-at-home order to allow for individual and small group sports — such as golfing and tennis, outdoor fitness instruction, recreational fishing and hunting, recreational boating and horseback riding — starting Thursday.
Also, Maryland’s state-owned beaches and parks will open Thursday for walking and exercise. Local governments will have the flexibility to take similar actions at their discretion, Hogan said.
“I know how anxious people are to get outside, both for their physical and mental well-being, and we know that outside activity is safer than inside activity,” Hogan said during a news conference Wednesday at the State House in Annapolis.
He said his coronavirus advisory team had “much discussion” Tuesday on the issue of outdoor activities, and members ultimately agreed to allow “lower-risk outdoor activities."
Hogan also announced that hospitals can resume nonemergency procedures, which had been barred in an attempt to keep inpatient populations low in case a surge of COVID-19 cases threatened to overwhelm them.
“Many Marylanders may have put off important procedures, screenings and other things that they really need to attend to," Hogan said. “If there’s something that you have had to delay — like a PET scan or a biopsy, an angioplasty or an orthopedic procedure — you should now be able to take care of those time-sensitive procedures."
The changes marked the first easing of Hogan’s strict statewide restrictions, imposed starting in March to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The governor has pushed back against a wider reopening, saying the state needs to reach a sustained decline in the number of hospitalizations for treatment of the illness.
The governor’s move to reopen golf courses followed lobbying by owners and operators of clubs. A Politico reporter even asked him about it in April during a live interview.
“I want to get you on the record on this critical issue,” Politico reporter Jake Sherman asked. “Will golf courses in your state open any time in the near future?”
“Is there particular golf course that you would like to have open?” Hogan responded, chuckling. Hogan went on to say that opening golf courses would be “one of the early things that we do” as part of reopening — a pledge he fulfilled Wednesday.
David G. Bannister, board member of the Caves Valley Golf Club in Baltimore County, said he thinks golf is an activity that can be done safely.
While some courses might reopen immediately, Caves Valley plans to take its time preparing the facility and open May 22.
“We need a couple weeks to get things ready to go," Bannister said. "Caves is a high-end experience. In order to present it the way you want, it takes a little time to tidy up.”
Republican lawmakers also had pressed to allow golfing, including U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland’s only Republican in Congress. Though he’s not a golfer, Harris said as an anesthesiologist he understands how to control infections.
Harris has become a vocal proponent of the “reopen” movement, agitating for Hogan to lift restrictions and restart the local economy. He appeared last weekend at a rally in Salisbury, comparing Maryland to North Korea and China.
“We should categorize businesses as low-risk and high-risk and allow low-risk businesses to open,” he said. “Golf is a perfect example.”
The state issued a list of “best practices” for golf courses that reopen.
For example, golf course staff should be limited in number, wear masks and keep far apart. Clubhouses, pro shops and locker rooms need to remain closed. Players are limited to two per golf cart — and only if they are from the same household. Golf carts must be sanitized before use.
Anglers and boaters, likewise, had been agitating for weeks for permission to get back on the water. The prior orders limited fishing to those who need to fish in order to eat.
Del. Nic Kipke, the Republican leader in the Maryland House of Delegates, welcomed the resumption of boating. He and other Republicans had written Hogan to ask for more allowed activities, including boating and fishing.
“We were the last state in the nation to allow recreational boating, so I’m glad that we no longer have that distinction,” said Kipke, whose northern Anne Arundel County district is surrounded by rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.
Like golf courses, marinas that open must take steps to prohibit patrons from gathering on piers or boat ramps. Boaters must wear masks when they’re not on a boat, and the only people going out on a boat together — no more than 10 — should be “housemates on land.” Raft-ups and docking at restaurants won’t be allowed.
Andy Anderson, the owner and operator of Finest Kind Yacht Management, had questioned the ban on most boating, posting frequently on social media.
“I’m relieved. It’s nice the governor and his staff are starting to listen to the citizens,” said Anderson, an Edgewater resident. “What’s the difference between going to Sam’s Club with your wife or going out on a boat in the open air with the same person?”
David Sikorski, the executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, applauded the governor for lifting the restrictions and encouraged fishermen throughout the state to enjoy the activity and be safe doing it.
“The governor’s decision has come at a perfect time as we prepare for the start of summer and all anglers are more than ready to safely spend some time outdoors,” said Sikorski, a Baltimore resident who represents recreational fishermen on a state advisory commission.
“Fishing has always been a practice of social distancing, so continue to follow the necessary guidelines, wearing a mask when necessary, and just give an extra thought to how your activities may impact others," he said.
The change permitting nonemergency medical procedures was welcome news to hospitals, where leaders also have been concerned that Marylanders have avoided getting needed care for fear of contracting the coronavirus.
Hospitals in the state have seen a 30% decrease in patients, which could result in a $1 billion shortfall by June, according to Bob Atlas, president of the Maryland Hospitals Association.
“Maryland hospitals support Gov. Hogan’s gradual moves to reopening the state,” Atlas said.
Improved hospital capacity and supplies of protective equipment make it possible to allow the resumption of more medical procedures, Hogan said.
Atlas stressed that hospitals are taking safety precautions to prevent the spread of the virus.
“Putting off necessary treatment can lead to complications or long-term health problems,” Atlas said. “You should never delay seeking emergency or urgently needed medical care.”
Baltimore Sun reporters Meredith Cohn and Glenn Graham contributed to this article.