With coronavirus cases rising, sending more Marylanders to hospitals and intensive care units, Gov. Larry Hogan announced a tightening of restrictions on restaurants Tuesday and sought to discourage large family gatherings and parties.
Under the governor’s order, restaurants must scale back at 5 p.m. Wednesday from 75% of capacity to 50% for indoor dining.
And with Thanksgiving on the horizon, as well as the end of a shortened semester at some universities, the state is “strongly” discouraging indoor gatherings of more than 25 people. That’s because contact tracing has shown family gatherings and house parties were frequent activities of those who’ve fallen ill, the Republican governor said.
“We have now crossed over into the danger zone. Too many residents and businesses have ‘COVID fatigue,’ and they are letting their guard down," Hogan said as he reiterated his stern warnings for Marylanders to take the virus seriously.
Hogan said Marylanders need to rethink their plans with people who live outside their homes.
“The reality is that you can just as easily get the virus by hosting a group of friends to watch football on Sunday, or celebrating a family birthday, or the Thanksgiving holiday that’s fast approaching,” he said. “Each of us has to be more cautious and more vigilant.”
The state also advised Marylanders Tuesday against traveling to any state with a positivity rate of more than 10% or a new case rate greater than 20 cases per 100,000 people. Anyone who travels from or returns from those high-infection states should get tested when they get to Maryland and quarantine until they receive their results.
“You should immediately cancel or postpone travel to any of these states with spiking metrics,” Hogan said.
Meanwhile, Hogan ordered most state workers back to telework, and he urged private businesses to find ways to keep operating with fewer employees together at one time.
“Businesses are strongly encouraged to develop plans which limit the proximity of employees by rotating employee hours, instituting split schedules, shifts, shorter work weeks or staggering start, break or shift times," Hogan said.
State health officials have updated their plans for how to handle a surge of sick patients needing hospital care, ensuring that hospitals maintain the flexibility to transfer patients to temporary sites at the Baltimore Convention Center Field Hospital, the former Laurel Regional Hospital and Adventist Takoma Park Hospital.
Hospitalizations have increased steadily in recent weeks, to Tuesday’s level of 761 people in Maryland, which is more than 2½ times a low of 281 in September. Maryland’s largest hospital caseload of coronavirus patients was 1,711 in late April. Having enough beds and staff to treat COVID-19 patients without overwhelming hospitals has been a focus of leaders throughout the pandemic.
The state prepared to add up to 6,000 hospital beds early in the pandemic. But the first wave of the virus in the spring happened when hospitals were largely emptied of nonemergency patients.
This time, hospitals are closer to their regular level of operations and may see a winter influx of flu patients, leaving less room available for coronavirus patients, said Dr. Ted Delbridge, head of the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems.
Delbridge, who is trained as an emergency physician, warned that the current rise in cases could be a steady climb through the winter months if public health restrictions aren’t heeded.
“We’re concerned that December, January and February are going to be the peak times and dependent on the mitigating steps that the public takes — things like wearing a mask and keeping a distance,” Delbridge said at a news conference with the governor in Annapolis.
The state also pledged to make additional infection control staff available to help support nursing homes and assisted living homes with future outbreaks. Hogan reminded relatives to not visit loved ones in nursing homes if they’re ill and encouraged them to get tested before visits. Employees, meanwhile, should limit their exposure to group gatherings to reduce the chance of bringing the virus into the workplace.
“I just want to remind the people of Maryland that we have come too far and the stakes are too high. This virus does not care if you’re tired of it,” Hogan said. “It does not care if you have holiday plans. It doesn’t care who you voted for. And it will not let us move on just because we all desperately want to get back to our normal pre-COVID lives.”
The governor said additional actions could be forthcoming to get the virus under control.
A top health expert praised Hogan’s actions. Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, contrasted Hogan’s steps with those of governors in many other states who are taking few or no actions to slow the virus.
“His communication about the worsening of our state’s situation has been clear and strong, including his very direct instructions around public mask use,” Inglesby said.
Inglesby said encouraging teleworking, discouraging travel and preparing hospital capacity are helpful.
He wished Hogan would go further, however, in limiting restaurant capacity and gatherings. Inglesby suggested a limit of 10 people in gatherings would be a better move.
“But overall, I think the decisions and actions that have been made are very important steps in the right direction,” he said.
Hogan has been pressured by Baltimore’s mayor and the executives of six big counties, all Democrats, who want the governor to work more closely with them. Some county leaders, including Anne Arundel’s Steuart Pittman, are considering tightening restrictions in their jurisdictions in the absence of new statewide steps.
The Montgomery County Council did that Tuesday, approving Democratic County Executive Marc Elrich’s order limiting gatherings — including at stores, indoor restaurants and fitness centers — to 25% of capacity.
And Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young announced plans last week to scale back restaurant capacity to 25% and institute a 11 p.m. closing time starting Thursday. Stores, gyms, malls, theaters and places of worship also will be restricted to 25% capacity.
Hogan said he would increase the state’s briefings with local leaders from biweekly meetings to weekly, as the pandemic becomes a larger threat. The governor took a dig at leaders who sent him a letter asking for direct communication with them, noting that they’re all Democrats and some have ambitions for higher office.
Local leaders had mixed reactions to Hogan’s announcements, with some welcoming tougher state action. Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said statewide actions are the most effective.
In Baltimore City, a spokesman for the mayor lamented that local leaders hadn’t been looped in on the governor’s plans.
“Whatever he’s announcing it’s probably going to affect us in some way, so it would be great to have some heads-up on what’s coming,” said James Bentley, a spokesman for the mayor.
In Anne Arundel, Pittman said the tighter restrictions don’t go far enough, especially the guidance against having more than 25 people in gatherings.
“I don’t know how big your house is, but 25 people in my house is crammed in normal times,” said Pittman, a Democrat. “I would never imagine having 25 people in my house during a pandemic.”
Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, a Republican, questioned whether the restrictions would make a difference.
“I don’t know that it’s going to do much other than hurt our restaurants,” Glassman said.
The National Federation of Independent Business, which counts bars and restaurants among its members, made a more dire prediction, arguing that restaurants would not only be hurt, but some may be pushed out of business.
“Those establishments that cannot seat customers outside or don’t have the financial means to set up outdoor seating will be in an even tougher financial spot because of today’s order,” said Mike O’Halloran, NFIB’s state director.
New coronavirus cases have been rising dramatically over the past couple of weeks.
For seven consecutive days, Maryland has recorded at least 1,000 new infections. Hogan cited Allegany County in particular, saying its case rate has been rising “exponentially.”
Maryland’s positivity rate also is increasing, up to a seven-day average Tuesday of 5.24%.
“We cannot afford to ignore these trends and patterns," Hogan said.
Baltimore Sun reporters Meredith Cohn and Ben Leonard and Baltimore Sun Media reporters Danielle Ohl and S. Wayne Carter Jr. contributed to this article.