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Baltimore to loosen COVID restrictions to 50% capacity for most businesses, including indoor dining

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott announced Wednesday that he will further loosen coronavirus restrictions in the city, just days after digging in his heels against Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to reopen many businesses statewide.

Beginning Friday March 26, Baltimore will allow indoor dining at 50% of capacity and outdoor dining at 75% of capacity. House of worship, retail, indoor and outdoor recreation, gyms and casinos will be allowed to operate at half capacity.

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Indoor dining in the city is currently allowed to operate at 25% of capacity, along with gyms, retail, shopping malls and recreation. Outdoor dining is permitted at 50% of capacity.

During a news conference to announce the changes outside the city health department vaccination center at Baltimore City Community College, Scott warned residents that the city is not yet out of the woods. He noted St. Patrick’s Day, historically an occasion for gathering and drinking, was being celebrated Wednesday.

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“Don’t act a fool today,” he said. “You might kill somebody.”

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott gets his COVID vaccination Wednesday at Baltimore City Community College from the city health commissioner, Dr. Letitia Dzirasa.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott gets his COVID vaccination Wednesday at Baltimore City Community College from the city health commissioner, Dr. Letitia Dzirasa. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

The mayor’s latest order is still stricter than the reopening plan allowed under Hogan’s statewide order, announced last week. It ended capacity restrictions at restaurants and opened up large indoor and outdoor venues to 50% capacity.

Scott weighed the city’s options for several days ahead of Hogan’s order becoming effective March 12 and eventually announced the city would stick to its existing restrictions — which have been tighter than most of the state’s orders through much of the pandemic.

“The numbers and public health indicators clearly do not warrant a reopening at the governor’s pace at this time,” Scott said last week.

However, the Democratic mayor also pledged to revisit the restrictions as of March 22, four weeks after his last pandemic order was issued. The city had evaluated restrictions every four weeks, but the mayor said Wednesday that the city now will review restrictions every two weeks.

Asking why he didn’t reset restrictions last week, Scott said the city abides by its schedule for reevaluating data, not the governor’s.

“The city has had the lowest positivity rate, so we know that it’s working,” he said.

As of Tuesday, Baltimore’s testing positivity rate was below the state average, but its seven-day average of 16.9 infections per 100,000 people was above the state’s 14.34 average, state health department data showed.

Baltimore averaged 101.7 new infections daily over the last week, according city health department data. Intensive care and acute care beds at city’s 11 hospitals were 85% and 88% full, respectively.

Baltimore has been among a small group of Maryland jurisdictions, including Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, that have defied Hogan’s call to reopen businesses.

For much of the pandemic, the Republican governor allowed local jurisdictions to impose tougher restrictions if they helped “save lives or prevent exposure to COVID.” Most of the state’s largest jurisdictions did just that.

But Hogan’s latest order included different language. The governor declared local orders based on past state emergency orders null and void March 12. Most counties, including Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard, heeded Hogan’s call to fall in line and lifted restrictions last week.

Baltimore’s new orders draw authority from the city’s emergency powers. They are derived from the Maryland Public Safety Act, the Baltimore City Emergency Operations Plan, the city’s health code and the state’s Code of Maryland Regulations.

After Wednesday’s news conference, Scott received the single-shot Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine, administered by Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa.

As an elected leader, Scott, 36, has been eligible for the vaccine since mid-January as part of Phase 1B of the rollout. He said Wednesday that he decided to wait until now because he didn’t “feel right” about receiving it ahead of eligible seniors when supplies were limited.

Scott’s vaccination was one of the first delivered as part of a “continuity of government” vaccination program, launched Wednesday at BCCC, which aims to get all city employees vaccinated. Dozens of city employees waited in line to get inside the site as Scott was vaccinated outdoors. After receiving the shot, he joked with reporters that he felt ready to run laps and lift some weights.

“We wanted me to get this today as part of our continuity of government to show our workers that it’s safe,” Scott said. “But also to use it as an example to my generation, who are the people who are contracting the virus the most, and show them just because we’re young and healthy, we need to step up and do the responsible thing and get the shot.”

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