Gov. Larry Hogan outlined a three-stage plan Friday to gradually reopen Maryland businesses, services and gatherings, but he cautioned that it’s impossible to know when the deadly coronavirus pandemic will weaken enough that all activities can safely resume.
During a news conference at the State House in Annapolis, the Republican governor unveiled a strategy for reopening the state’s economy called “Maryland Strong: Roadmap to Recovery.” It includes three phases of slowly lifting restrictions and allowing shuttered businesses to reopen.
The governor suggested the first phase might begin as early as May, if hospitalizations from the virus decline.
“I’m optimistic that if Marylanders continue staying home and continue practicing physical distancing a little while longer, that our numbers could continue to plateau,” Hogan said. "I’m hopeful that we could then be able to begin our recovery in early May.”
Hogan did not offer specific targets that would need to be met before the recovery could begin. But he said the state would need to see two weeks’ of decreased numbers of hospitalizations, use of intensive care units and deaths due to the coronavirus that has swept across the globe and killed more than 195,000 people, including at least 723 confirmed deaths in Maryland.
The top factor, according to Hogan’s written plan, is the hospitalization rate, including how many patients are in intensive care each day.
The plan is based on four “building blocks” that are precursors to restarting the economy: ramping up testing capacity, instituting contact tracing, increasing the supply of personal protective gear and readying hospitals for a surge in patients that could otherwise overload the system. Hogan said the state is making progress in all four areas.
The plan indicates there could be a “rolling back” of relaxed measures if there are outbreaks or troubling trends toward more infections and deaths.
Pressed on whether a May timeframe would be realistic, Hogan indicated it would be optimistic.
“I want to do it today,” he said, laughing. Later, he added: “Our team is saying, hopefully, we’re beginning that trend. We watch it every day. Next week, I’m going to be saying to my doctors: ‘Are we there? Can we start to think about this?’"
Hogan also will consult with powerful Maryland business figures as he considers the next steps. He added several businessmen, a union leader and the head of a conservative think tank to his existing coronavirus advisory panel, which is being refashioned into a “coronavirus recovery team.”
Hogan is also setting up advisory groups for specific industries, faith communities and nonprofit organizations.
The shift toward recovery and reopening comes as the death toll from the coronavirus continues to mount in Maryland.
Several dozen more deaths were reported Friday. The state’s death toll is closer to 800 when 75 fatalities likely due to the virus are included. A total of 16,616 residents have tested positive for the virus since March, and 1,425 people were in the hospital Friday, up 141 from the day before.
Under Hogan’s reopening plan, stage one would lift the stay-at-home order, but keep many businesses and indoor activities closed. Some small businesses could reopen and offer curbside pickup and drop-offs, doctors could perform elective procedures, religious institutions could offer “limited attendance” at outdoor worship, gyms could offer outdoor classes, other outdoor work could resume with restrictions, and some recreational activities could resume, including boating, fishing, golfing, tennis and hunting.
In the first stage, local governments would have the flexibility to make decisions on reopening libraries, parks and other services, Hogan said.
Stage two would allow for larger social gatherings, indoor gym classes, regular childcare, increased mass transit schedules, indoor religious services, restaurant and bar service with restrictions, and elective procedures at hospitals.
Stage three would allow large social gatherings, the reopening of entertainment venues, large religious gatherings and fewer restrictions on visitors at nursing homes and hospitals. But Hogan cautioned that “there is no realistic timeline yet for achieving this level.”
Public schools, which have been closed since mid-March and will remain closed until at least May 15, are not listed among any of the phases. The Hogan administration has been consulting with state schools Superintendent Karen Salmon on plans for schools.
“We all want the state to reopen as quickly as it can. But it’s clear that if we open the state today, we would risk a fast acceleration in the epidemic to very high numbers,” said Dr. Tom Inglesby, a Hogan adviser who is director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Inglesby said the state needs to see declining rates of hospitalizations and ICU use, as well as a decline in deaths before considering relaxing restrictions.
“There isn’t a decline yet and we need to get to a point where the numbers are starting to move downward,” he said.
Hogan said that because of Maryland’s aggressive actions, the state has experienced “far fewer” cases, hospitalizations and deaths than models predicted. But he noted that cases are rising still.
Earlier this week, Hogan said the state was on its way to surpassing a goal of adding 6,000 hospital beds, including reopening three floors at the former Laurel Regional Hospital to inpatients, creating a field hospital at the Baltimore Convention Center, and adding beds and treatment tents at hospitals around the state.
And the testing portion got a boost this week, when Hogan announced the state had bought kits to make 500,000 tests from a South Korean company. Through Friday morning, the state had reported results from nearly 85,000 tests, out of a state population of about 6 million residents.
Even as reopening eventually begins, Inglesby cautioned that individuals will need to continue to take steps to prevent transmission of the virus, including wearing cloth masks, maintaining space away from others and telecommuting when possible.
"All of these things will make a big difference,” he said.
Hogan made similar comments.
“Even as we begin our recovery, we won’t be able to just flip a switch," Hogan said. “Unfortunately, life is not going to just immediately go back to normal. In fact, it is important to recognize that until a vaccine is developed, the way we go about our daily lives and the way we work is going to be significantly different for a while longer.”
Maryland has been under an open-ended state of emergency since March 5, when the first positive cases of the coronavirus were confirmed in a handful of state residents. In the weeks since then, Hogan closed schools and nonessential businesses, issued a stay-at-home order that curtailed activities and required Marylanders to wear masks in stores and on buses and trains.
The orders have resulted in more than 344,000 Marylanders losing their jobs and seeking unemployment benefits. The state has struggled to process unemployment claims. Meanwhile, a patchwork system of free food distribution has sprung up with the help of schools, governments, nonprofit organizations and the National Guard.
Some people have chafed under the restrictions and pushed back; critics participated last weekend in a drive-in protest in Annapolis.
Mike O’Halloran, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, called the governor’s comments that businesses might be able to start reopening next month “welcome news.”
He said about half of small business owners have told his organization they can’t make it another month without closing for good.
“They’re very cognizant that public health is No. 1,” O’Halloran said. “At the same time, they’re facing a financial crisis they’ve never experienced before."
State Sen. James Rosapepe, a Democrat who represents Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, called a phased-in reopening wise, but he’s concerned the state isn’t ready to move ahead yet in certain areas.
“The stage process was very well thought out and setting up the advisory groups makes a lot of sense,” Rosapepe said. “The challenge, as the governor has said, is we’ve got to get to large-scale tracing and testing and tracing.”
Hogan’s latest additions to his overall advisory team included a group that was largely white and male, even though African Americans make up nearly 45% of deaths in which the patient’s race is known in Maryland. African Americans account for 30% of Marylanders.
The new members include Arne Sorensen, the president of Bethesda-based Marriott International; Robert Doar, president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank; Kevin Plank, the founder of Under Armour; Jim Davis, chairman of Allegis Group; Mark McManus, general president of United Association, a labor union; and Augie Chiasera, president of M&T Bank’s Greater Baltimore and Chesapeake Region.
Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, who is African American, and Carol Beatty, the state secretary for disabilities, also joined the now 22-member panel as it transitioned from a medical and public health advisory “response” team to a “recovery" team.