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Maryland lifts outdoor mask mandate after new CDC guidance for vaccinated people

Governor Larry Hogan announces from the governor’s mansion that masks are no longer required outdoors.

Marylanders no longer need to wear face coverings in most outdoor settings, Gov. Larry Hogan said Wednesday, though he “strongly encouraged” those who are not vaccinated against the coronavirus to continue to mask up.

Masks still are required in Maryland at “large ticketed venues” that are outdoors, such as stadiums, as well as at indoor businesses and on public transit.

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Hogan’s announcement, which took effect immediately, followed guidance the federal government issued Tuesday that said fully vaccinated people need not wear masks in most outdoor settings because the risk of transmitting the coronavirus is low. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said vaccinated people still should wear masks in outdoor settings with crowds, such as stadiums and concerts.

Hogan, a Republican, said his new order is “in line” with the CDC’s guidance, but it actually goes slightly further. The CDC continues to recommend that unvaccinated people wear masks outdoors when around members of other households and people who may not be vaccinated.

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Hogan said it would be impossible to determine who is vaccinated and who is not, making different rules for different groups unenforceable.

“We can’t check IDs to see if you’ve been vaccinated or not,” he said.

The state’s prior order required masks for anyone older than 5 outdoors when maintaining physical distancing was not possible. Some local governments had stricter orders, including Baltimore City, which requires masks outdoors at all times. Anne Arundel County applied its mask order to anyone age 2 or older.

Local governments have the ability to set stricter requirements for masking, but “I wouldn’t advise that because this is the advice of the CDC and the state,” Hogan said.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, a Republican, quickly issued a statement Wednesday afternoon saying his county would follow the state’s new mask-free rules for outdoors.

Baltimore County also will not restrict outdoor mask-wearing beyond the state’s rules, said Democratic County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.

“As Baltimore County remains in alignment with the state’s next steps, we must continue to stay vigilant, follow the guidance of scientists, and get fully vaccinated as soon as possible to preserve the progress we’re making together,” Olszewski said in a statement. “We will continue to closely monitor key data in the coming weeks and we remain fully prepared to take steps as necessary to protect public health. Baltimore County, please use caution and help us stay on the path to winning our fight against this disease. By each doing our part, we can end this crisis once and for all.”

Democratic County Executive Steuart Pittman said Anne Arundel’s outdoor mask order would remain in place while county health officials review Hogan’s order. In Howard County, Democratic Executive Calvin Ball said his team also was reviewing the new order.

In a Wednesday evening news release, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and the city health department said they will announce guidance for city residents “in the days to come.”

Scott, a Democrat who has consistently set stricter coronavirus regulations for the city than the state’s, said he wanted to ensure Baltimore’s local mask mandate aligns with the CDC’s guidance. He reiterated that three in four Baltimoreans are not fully vaccinated.

“While there is a lower risk of disease transmission outdoors, that is not the same as no-risk of disease transmission,” Scott said. “Creating policy that distinguishes between people who are vaccinated and non-vaccinated will inform our review of the current mask mandate.”

Hogan, who spoke maskless on the lawn of the governor’s mansion in Annapolis, also eased some restrictions on bars and restaurants effective Saturday. For outdoor service, there will no longer be restrictions on capacity or distancing between tables. Standing service also will be allowed outside at bars and restaurants.

“As we have stressed from the beginning, outdoor activity is much safer than indoor activity,” the governor said.

He encouraged residents to do more outside now that the weather is nice.

“It has been a long and difficult year, but thanks to the hard work, the sacrifices and the vigilance of the people of Maryland, each day now brings us closer to the light at the end of this very long tunnel and to a return to normalcy in our everyday lives,” Hogan said.

Hogan was joined by two top state health officials who also did not wear masks: Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader and Dr. Jinlene Chan, acting deputy secretary for public health.

The governor also encouraged Marylanders to get the coronavirus vaccine, saying that those who are vaccinated are much safer than those who are not.

“If you are an individual who does not intend to get vaccinated, we want to make sure you understand that you are at risk of hospitalization and death,” Hogan said.

Hogan said vaccine supply is “not yet” outpacing demand, but it’s getting close.

With the vaccine abundantly available and it’s time to ease up on people who’ve been inoculated, Hogan said.

“Everyone who’s been vaccinated can no longer be held back by those who refuse to do so,” he said.

Neil Sehgal, an assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, said Hogan’s lifting of the outdoor mask mandate ignores vaccination disparities across the state and undermines the governor’s comments about unvaccinated people still being at great risk.

”The governor seems to think that anyone who’s not been vaccinated refused to be vaccinated — he used the word ‘refused’ — and that’s simply not the case,” Sehgal said.

He said many have interpreted the CDC’s guidance outlining things fully vaccinated people can do safely as an incentive for people to get vaccinated.

Hogan, however, “defaulted on the side of permissibility,” while ignoring that most who start vaccination with a first dose this week won’t be fully immunized until June, which “exposes those people to additional risk,” Sehgal said.

Sehgal was dismayed by Hogan’s comments that localities should not choose to keep outdoor mask mandates in place, he said.

“I hope that local leaders will continue to maintain and enforce mandates where cases are still prevalent and vaccinations are not,” he said.

Other public health experts, speaking generally about masks before Hogan’s announcement, said people should continue to be cautious while adapting to the eased mask rules.

Dr. Chris Beyrer, professor of public health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, was among experts who described the latest CDC guidance on unmasking outdoors for vaccinated people as reasonable. He said it will go a long way toward “feeling like we can start to see each other again.”

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”It has to be that once you’re fully immunized, you can begin to resume activities,” Beyrer said. “If that’s not the guidance, people would rightly think, ‘What’s the point of getting vaccines?’”

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Dr. Donald Milton, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, urged people to continue to be careful in certain settings, like professional sports games and concerts. As the CDC noted, there’s still considerable risk in those scenarios.

”If it’s people you know and you know that they’re vaccinated, that’s safe,” Milton said. “When it gets beyond that right now, there’s enough unvaccinated people around that it’s still somewhat risky.”

Starting Saturday, Maryland residents can directly book appointments, rather than preregistering, for state mass vaccination sites by calling 855-MD-GOVAX (855-634-6829) or by going online at covidvax.maryland.gov.

Through Thursday, residents still can preregister for the vaccine, and anyone who does so will be contacted to set up an appointment by the end of the day Friday, the governor said. After that, there will be no more preregistration, only direct booking of appointments.

The state has 12 mass vaccination sites open, with a 13th and final site expected to open Friday at the Mall in Columbia in Howard County. That site plans to give 1,000 doses on its first day.

“If you have been on the fence or have been waiting, now is the perfect time to go out and get your shot,” Hogan said. “With a vaccine you are much safer now. But without a vaccine you continue to be at risk.”

Through Wednesday morning, health officials reported that 1.9 million people in Maryland, or about 31.5% of the state’s population has been fully vaccinated — either by completing a two-dose course of the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccines or receiving the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. And 43% of the state’s population has received at least one dose.

But Marylanders still are getting sick and dying from the coronavirus, which has been in the state for more than a year. As of Wednesday, 1,093 people were in the hospital with COVID-19 and 20 more people had died, bringing the cumulative death toll to 8,521.

Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell and Baltimore Sun Media reporters Chase Cook and S. Wayne Carter Jr. contributed to this article.

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