Maryland’s stay-at-home order will be lifted at 5 p.m. Friday, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Wednesday, citing a slight two-week decline in hospitalizations statewide due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Republican governor is replacing the order with a “Safer at Home” advisory that will not be enforced by the rule of law. It allows manufacturing, retail, haircuts and worship services to resume with limitations.
Though the fight against the virus is “far from over,” Hogan said the state “can now at least begin to slowly recover.”
Though Maryland residents will no longer be required to stay home, Hogan said those at risk of complications should continue to stay inside, everyone still must wear masks in indoor public areas and employees should work from home as much as possible. Physical distancing continues to be a must, he said.
Restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 people and closure of businesses deemed nonessential remain in place.
Hogan’s move sparked push-back from some leading Democrats, county executives and public health experts who worried he was moving too quickly to reopen the state.
Dr. Leana Wen, a former Baltimore health commissioner who is now a professor at George Washington University, said she’s not sure the state is ready. But she said she was glad to see a clear message that restrictions could be reimposed if infections escalate.
“My concern is whether we have the public health infrastructure — the testing, contact tracing and isolation capacity — to take these steps,” Wen said. “If we don’t, then going to phase one is a recipe for failure, with the certainty of new infections and another round of lockdowns.”
Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said he was “surprised by how quickly the new orders will take effect.”
“There likely will be outstanding questions around issues like child care for workers and clear guidance for retail establishments. I’m hopeful that local executives will provide more actionable guidance for their residents,” Ferguson said.
Several county executives and the mayor of Baltimore signaled they will take a slow approach to implementing any reopening.
“Rushing to reopen in our large, densely populated jurisdictions jeopardizes the lives of our neighbors and loved ones,” Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and Baltimore City Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said in a joint statement.
Dozens of Marylanders continue to die each day from the virus, and outbreaks at nursing homes and in the Eastern Shore poultry industry remain a concern for health officials. There have been 1,694 confirmed deaths in Maryland due to the coronavirus, and 115 more deaths that were likely due to the virus.
Even so, citing a decline in hospitalizations, Hogan said he believes there is sufficient data to support gradual resumption of some activities that have been banned or curtailed for weeks.
On April 30, 1,711 Marylanders were hospitalized due to COVID-19. As of Wednesday, that number had dipped to 1,550.
The decision also comes as Maryland’s economy has been rocked by the shutdowns. Hundreds of thousands are unemployed and struggling to receive benefits from an overwhelmed system.
Hogan’s announcement means that all manufacturing may resume and retail stores may reopen at up to 50% of capacity with curbside service and delivery encouraged. Such retailers include clothing and shoe sellers, pet groomers, car washes, art galleries and bookstores. Barbershops and hair salons also may open with up to 50% capacity, and by appointment only.
Churches and houses of worship may begin to hold religious services at up to 50% of capacity, with outdoor services encouraged.
Hogan made the announcement standing alone at a lectern in the State House. He was not joined by any of his medical advisers who often appear at his news conferences, such as Deputy Secretary Fran Phillips of the state health department, Dr. Tom Inglesby from Johns Hopkins University or Dr. David Marcozzi of the University of Maryland Medical System — who all variously have been featured at earlier announcements.
Hogan’s order gives local governments the option to retain stricter measures.
"We are providing for a flexible, community-based approach which empowers individual county leaders to make decisions regarding stage one reopenings in their jurisdictions,” Hogan said.
He said he “fully understands” not all counties are in the same situations with the rate of infections, hospitals and deaths.
He noted that Prince George’s County and Montgomery County leaders have made clear that they are not ready to reopen, based on their high rates of infection.
Several local leaders have said they’ve been in discussions about whether they might keep tighter restrictions than what Hogan is allowing.
Young, Olszewski and Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman said they would consult with health officials in the coming days to decide their next steps. Members of Carroll County’s Board of Commissioners plan to discuss Hogan’s plan at their meeting Thursday.
The possibility of different rules in different counties troubled the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, which represents businesses. Chamber President Christine Ross said regional variations could be particularly difficult for companies that operate in multiple parts of the state.
“This patchwork approach could prove detrimental for employers and their employees, who are already in the midst of navigating a difficult and evolving crisis situation,” Ross said in a statement.
Businesses now will have to wait to hear from their mayor or county executive before knowing what their future holds, noted Mike O’Halloran, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business.
“Those small businesses are faced with a new challenge and are now asking: What is my local government going to decide?” he said.
Some businesses had been thinking ahead, hoping for an easing of restrictions.
Ahead of the news conference, Charm City Run co-owner Josh Levinson sent an email to customers outlining a general plan for reopening when the time arrived.
Charm City Run stores will serve customers by appointment and limit shoe-fitting stations to three per store. It will allow time in between appointments to sanitize the spaces. The store will continue to push delivery and curbside pickup of running shoes and gear.
“I didn’t want there to be a press conference and then have our whole team panic and try to get ready,” Levinson said.
Michael Deutsch, managing partner of Auto Spa Car Wash in Cockeysville, was excited about the governor’s announcement. The governor’s revised orders last week allowed him to offer exterior car cleanings but not certain features, such as tire cleanings and towel drying.
In preparation for being allowed to expand his services, Deustch had plexiglass installed around the lobby counter and added stickers to the floor urging social distancing.
Some religious leaders were surprised that Hogan’s new order allows houses of worship to offer indoor services at 50% capacity. The “Roadmap to Recovery” plan listed only outdoor services as allowable in the first phase.
The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland won’t allow any in-person worship services this weekend and will issue more specific directives next week, said Carrie Graves, a spokeswoman for the diocese. Parishes will have to apply to diocesan leadership for permission to reopen.
“The safety of our parishioners is our No. 1 priority,” Graves said.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore put out a 35-page guide for Catholic parishes this week that will be reviewed to see how it fits with the newest state order. The Archdiocese’s plan calls for reopening churches for private prayer, weddings, funerals and baptisms before celebrating regular daily or Sunday Mass.
Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, expects few in-person Shabbat services this weekend.
“Overall, most synagogues will take their time to see how things can resume in a safe way,” he said. “There are a lot of complicated issues to work out.”
While Maryland is moving toward reopening, “it does not mean that we are safe or that this crisis is over," Hogan said. “Low risk does not mean no risk.”
If there’s not a spike in hospitalizations, ICU usage or outbreaks with the expanded activities, then the state could eventually move to the second phase of the reopening plan, Hogan said.
It’s a “painful truth” that the virus “will be a part of our daily lives and potential outbreaks will continue to remain a deadly threat until a vaccine is widely available,” Hogan said.
The governor acknowledged that some will think the state is moving too quickly or too slowly.
Hogan said the pace of continued reopening will depend on the actions of Marylanders. “If everybody goes crazy and does things that are unsafe” then infections could spike again and slow progress, he said.
Hogan’s move puts the state slightly out of sync with its neighbors.
Just hours before Hogan’s announcement, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser extended the stay-at-home order in the nation’s capital through June 8.
Across the Potomac River, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is keeping Northern Virginia counties under strict restrictions until at least May 29, while the rest of the state begins a gradual reopening Friday.
Delaware Gov. John Carney has targeted June 1 as a potential date to begin phasing out coronavirus restrictions.
Baltimore Sun Media reporters Meredith Cohn, Mary Grace Keller and Jonathan Pitts contributed to this article.