Mayor Brandon Scott enacted an order Friday to keep in place Baltimore’s COVID-19 restrictions — deviating from Gov. Larry Hogan’s directive that lifted most capacity restrictions aimed at curbing the virus’ spread, a mandate accepted by the counties surrounding the city.
Baltimore restaurants and bars will continue to seat patrons at 50% capacity outdoors and 25% indoors, per Scott’s executive order, which went into effect at 6 a.m. Meanwhile, retailers, fitness centers, libraries, museums, casinos, barber shops and salons, as well as theaters and outdoor entertainment venues, can entertain a quarter of their maximum volume of customers.
Flanked by Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa and other public health experts at a news conference near City Hall, Scott said his administration would continue to follow the science and would not change course based on the decisions of Hogan and neighboring county leaders. He quoted Democratic President Joe Biden’s address Thursday night in saying: “‘This fight is far from over.’”
Scott emphasized the coronavirus’ impact on Baltimore in 2021: 9,371 cases and 172 deaths. In all, COVID-19 has infected 41,262 city residents and killed 810 more since officials began to track the disease last March. While Scott is encouraged by recent metrics, he maintained the picture was hardly rosy.
“Our nation and our city is still very much in the midst of this pandemic,” Scott said.
Dzirasa cited “public health indicators,” including a plateau of new daily coronavirus infections in the city, and the city’s comparatively low vaccination rate as reasons to keep the restrictions.
As of Thursday, Baltimore’s testing positivity rate was below the state average, but its seven-day average of 19.3 infections per 100,000 people was well above the state’s 13.7, state health department data showed. Baltimore averaged more than 93.1 new infections daily over the last week, according Baltimore City Health Department data. Intensive care and acute care at city’s 11 hospitals were 84% and 87% full, respectively.
Only about 9.4% of Baltimore residents have been completely vaccinated, the fourth-lowest proportion in Maryland, according to state health data.
Dzirasa and Scott said they’d reconsider the current measures March 22, four weeks after they instituted them.
Scott had already offered his blessing to the Baltimore Orioles’ announcement Friday that the team will limit the admission of fans to 25% of the capacity of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, starting with its home opener next month. That’s a maximum of about 11,000 fans per game.
But Camden Yards is just one many Baltimore landmarks — including restaurants, museums and casinos — that attract visitors from around the state.
“If Baltimore were to open up, you all are a destination. Just imagine all the people who would influx into Baltimore who haven’t been vaccinated, who could be bringing virus in,” said Dr. Brian Castrucci, president and CEO of the Bethesda-based de Beaumont Foundation, a public health-focused charitable organization. “Do you want all the people from the state driving in to go to the aquarium this weekend?”
Workers who staff those attractions are at greater risk of contracting the virus, and increasing the odds of virus transmission when the state’s vaccination campaign has the potential to soon reach many more Marylanders is irresponsible, Castrucci said. “[Scott’s] job is to protect the people of Baltimore and he’s sure as heck doing it.”
Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties heeded Hogan’s call Tuesday to fall in line with his latest order, which eased at 5 p.m. Friday many restrictions designed to curb the virus’ spread. Citing declines in key coronavirus metrics, the Republican governor lifted capacity limits on restaurants, bars and most other businesses statewide, while allowing large venues to reopen at half capacity.
Baltimore City joined Montgomery and Prince George’s counties as among the few local jurisdictions that defied Hogan.
Hogan’s order sent most local leaders scrambling to consult with attorneys because it scrapped language in previous editions that allowed localities to institute stricter rules.
After several days of confusion, the state attorney general’s office confirmed Thursday night that the change rendered local orders that cited Hogan’s previous orders “null and void.” However, Frosh said, localities had other powers to regulate public health matters.
In Baltimore, the task of analyzing the effect of Hogan’s order landed on City Solicitor Jim Shea, whom Scott swore in to office Wednesday. Shea said Hogan’s mandate created “confusion, but not any barrier to the mayor’s renewed executive order.”
To legally move forward with Scott’s desire to keep in place the existing restrictions, Shea found the mayor needed to sign the new executive order. That’s because the city’s previous rendition “invoked joint authority” from Hogan’s order and local laws, Shea said.
Hogan’s order added a clause that prohibited local regulations inconsistent with the governor’s mandates, but that wasn’t a problem for Baltimore because the purpose of Scott’s order mirrors Hogan’s: “to prevent the spread of COVID,” Shea said.
Shea said Scott’s new order draws authority from the city’s emergency powers 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.
Some Baltimore restaurateurs were unhappy to learn of Scott maintaining stricter limits on their businesses.
Even with no limit on capacity, thanks to Hogan’s order being in effect in Baltimore County, Jackie McCusker’s Nacho Mama’s restaurant in Towson will operate at about 50% to accommodate for the still-required social distancing.
Still, that’s better than the conditions for her restaurants in the city, Nacho Mama’s and Mama’s On The Half Shell in Canton, the former temporarily closed because of dining restrictions.
“The difference between 25% and 50%, it’s pretty substantial,” McCusker said.
Scott said he had to prioritize his city’s health over the economic impact of more restrictive measures.
Considering imminent St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and the city’s hospitals approaching capacity, Scott urged Baltimore residents to avoid crowds, wear masks and practice physical distancing. Otherwise, he warned of a potential post post-holiday virus surge.
“It’s not the time to go barhopping,” Scott said.
Baltimore Sun reporters Jon Meoli, Emily Opilo and Nathan Ruiz contributed to this article.