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Maryland to allow indoor dining, gyms, casinos and more as Hogan lifts more coronavirus restrictions

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announces a further relaxation of restrictions that were put into place to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Gov. Larry Hogan pushed to further reopen Maryland from coronavirus pandemic-related shutdowns Wednesday, laying out a timeline for indoor dining, outdoor amusements, indoor gyms, casinos and malls to resume operations with restrictions over the next couple of weeks.

As with past announcements, when those businesses reopen will be contingent on city and county leaders signing on. Over the past month, several jurisdictions — including Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — have adopted slower reopening plans than Hogan allowed.

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With local approval, the following activities will be allowed in Maryland starting at 5 p.m. Friday:

  • Indoor dining at restaurants, limited to 50% capacity, with tables at least six feet apart and other public health protective measures.
  • Outdoor amusements, such as miniature golf and go-kart tracks, limited to 50% capacity and with other public health protective measures.

With local approval, the following activities will be allowed in Maryland starting at 5 p.m. June 19:

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  • Indoor fitness centers, gyms, martial arts, dance and other studio-type activities, limited to 50% capacity and with other public health protective measures.
  • Casinos, arcades and malls can reopen with public health protective measures.

Hogan, a Republican, said the looser restrictions will be safe only if people continue to wear masks and practice social distancing.

“The fight against this virus is far from over,” Hogan said during a State House news conference.

Fran Phillips, the state’s deputy secretary for public health, cautioned that just because activities are allowed does not mean that everyone should participate.

“Nothing is zero risk, so we need to be prudent about the decisions we make,” she said.

When Hogan was asked if he would be comfortable going to dinner indoors, he said that he would not, given that he is older than 60 and has survived cancer. Instead, he would consider eating outside, “which we know is safer.”

Karen B. Salmon, the state superintendent of schools, said that all child care centers may now reopen, with the maximum number of staff and children set at 15 per room. Previously child care centers had been limited to those serving children of essential workers with stricter occupancy limits.

Schools also may now bring “small groups” of students and staff into buildings. The state is encouraging school districts to focus summer learning programs on vulnerable children or students who lack the ability to participate in distance learning.

Salmon said all non-public special education schools may reopen to serve small groups of students with disabilities, and following the same parameters as public schools.

“Students with the most intense learning needs have been hit the hardest by the pandemic,” she said.

High schools also will be allowed to start up outdoor sports, following the same guidelines previously put into place for youth sports, such as focusing on skill-building and drills and avoiding player contact.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether all Baltimore-area jurisdictions would go along with the new rules. Local leaders said they were not consulted or notified about the governor’s announcement.

Harford and Howard counties will go along with the governor’s orders, officials said.

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“Our goal has always been to open as safely and as quickly as possible,” said Howard County Executive Calvin Ball, a Democrat.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman said many businesses, including restaurants and gyms, are hitting a “make or break” point.

“The outside dining helped, but it’s not a model that works for everybody,” said Glassman, a Republican. “Six or eight tables doesn’t pay the bills at the end of the month.”

Carroll County’s commissioners plan to discuss reopening further at their Thursday meeting, but have followed the governor’s steps to date.

Other local leaders were still deciding what their next steps will be.

“Yet again, we learned today’s news at the same time as the rest of the public,” said Sean Naron, a spokesman for Democratic Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. “We’re currently evaluating the new announcements made today and will identify our next steps after consulting with our public health team.”

Baltimore City officials will take one to two days to evaluate whether to lift more restrictions in the city, said Lester Davis, a spokesman for Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young.

Hogan criticized Young, saying there is no excuse for the city not to reopen.

“I think it’s absolutely absurd that thousands of people can gather in the streets and a small business can’t open” in Baltimore, Hogan said.

City officials are mindful that the coronavirus has had a disproportionate impact on people of color, and the city is about 60% black, Davis said.

“What works in some other portions of the state are not necessarily going to work in Baltimore City,” Davis said.

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, a Democrat, said after preliminary conversations with the health officer, he was concerned that Hogan’s week-by-week reopening schedule does not allow enough time for the impact of additional reopening to show up in the data. He said he won’t make a decision before meeting with his recovery advisory team Thursday afternoon.

Local school systems were caught off guard by the announcement that they could hold limited in-person classes this summer.

Most Maryland school districts had planned to hold summer school remotely and were surprised by Salmon’s announcement.

Anne Arundel County and Baltimore County school officials said they would consult county leaders and community members before drawing up a reopening plan.

The governor’s announcement is the latest step in undoing a series of restrictions put in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus, which has claimed the lives of at least 2,719 people in the state. The state reported 561 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 33 more deaths Wednesday, bringing the state to 59,465 infections of COVID-19.

“While we are continuing to battle this deadly virus, we are also battling the health of small business and the thousands of Marylanders who have not been working and are struggling to make ends meet,” Hogan said. “Which is why we are pushing to safely reopen our economy.”

Some businesses were thrilled by Hogan’s announcement.

Linwood Dame has power-washed and sanitized the interior of his Owings Mills fine-dining restaurant Linwoods in preparation of reopening. He also installed lights that he said hospitals use to kill germs.

Linwoods has been open for carryout and patio dining, but Dame estimates he’s already lost about 60% of his annual income. However, he praised Hogan’s decisions.

“I think the state and governor has done a great job,” he said. “But now, for all the restaurants out there: Let’s get busy.”

Richard Huffman, CEO of Celebree Schools, said the larger class sizes for daycare centers help, but are not enough.

“We are grateful we are headed in the right direction and classroom sizes are larger," he said.

Huffman said if a restaurant can open with 50% capacity and dozens of diners, then a daycare center should be allowed to have up to 20 students in a classroom.

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Hogan initiated a series of shutdowns on activities beginning in March when the virus first appeared and spread in Maryland, gradually ramping up closures to the point that he issued a “stay-at-home” order on March 30 that left only essential businesses open. Schools have been closed to in-person lessons since mid-March.

Just last week, Hogan launched the second phase of his three-phase “Maryland Strong Roadmap to Recovery,” which lays out rough guidelines for when higher-risk activities can resume. The plan does not include specific data points that must be met or prescribe specific timelines, leaving those decisions to the governor.

Hogan’s latest announcement comes as the state has seen a two-week decline in coronavirus-related hospitalizations, a key measure of its spread and intensity. On Wednesday, 955 Marylanders were being treated in the hospital, with 379 of them in intensive care.

The state also has seen improvements in its positivity rate, which is the rate of positive tests compared to the overall number of tests conducted. The latest seven-day average, reported Wednesday, was 7.24%, a slight increase from the day before — the first uptick in the metric in 14 days.

The World Health Organization recommends 14 straight days of positivity rates of 5% or lower before governments consider easing restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.

Hogan acknowledged that public health officials have “serious concerns” about thousands gathering together at protests, and encouraged anyone who participated to get tested for the virus.

The governor announced that more testing sites will be added in the Baltimore region, including at the Baltimore Convention Center.

Baltimore Sun Media reporters Liz Bowie, Nathan Ruiz, Mary Grace Keller, Olivia Sanchez and Ana Faguy contributed to this article.

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