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Restaurants, bars, Camden Yards: What lifting Maryland’s COVID restrictions might look like

Maryland will become the latest state to lift capacity restrictions on bars, restaurants, stores and a slew of other establishments, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Tuesday. Despite an ongoing lack of vaccine supply, the governor cited improved coronavirus metrics and a goal of stimulating the economy.

But the statewide masking and social distancing mandates will remain in place, so most businesses won’t be able to fill to 100% capacity anyway. And while the Republican governor wants to allow large venues — including Oriole Park at Camden Yards and Pimlico Race Course — to reopen at 50% capacity, Hogan said local authorities in Baltimore and other areas can still impose stricter measures.

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“The most important thing is we kept the masking orders fully in place and the distancing requirements fully in place,” Hogan said in a news conference Tuesday afternoon. “Many states have not done that and, I think, acted a little more rapidly to get rid of all the mitigation efforts.

“We chose not to do that. Lifting capacity limits while still maintaining all those orders, we think, is a safer approach.”

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So what will that look like for your favorite restaurant or the Orioles’ Opening Day? Here’s a breakdown on the state’s latest reopening efforts, which take effect 5 p.m. Friday:

Is it open season for bars and restaurants?

Short answer? No, it is not.

First, it depends on where they are and whether local leaders in that area follow the governor in loosening restrictions. All the counties in the Baltimore region have elected to go along with Hogan’s order, but Baltimore City will not. Mayor Brandon Scott said Thursday that it’s still too soon and that the city will seek to maintain its 25% indoor and 50% outdoor dining capacity limits.

“The numbers and public health indicators clearly do not warrant a reopening at the Governor’s pace at this time,” Scott’s spokeswoman Stefanie Mavronis said in a statement. “The Mayor remains confident in Baltimore’s authority to maintain the common sense, local public health mandates currently in place as we continue to navigate this pandemic.”

But the state’s ongoing requirements will keep bars, restaurants, nightclubs and other establishments from fully reopening anyway.

People still won’t be allowed to be served at bars, and tables must be spaced out enough to provide for socially distanced dining — meaning establishments won’t actually be able to operate at 100% capacity as they know it.

Asked about St. Patrick’s Day, Hogan warned against the rowdy celebrations many bars and pubs traditionally host.

“You can’t be standing jammed into a bar,” Hogan said. “That’s still against the regulations. First, we’re going to ask all the businesses to make sure people comply. And the public health orders are still in effect, and the health department and the local jurisdictions will still be able to enforce those regulations.”

The same goes for stores, houses of worship, gyms and fitness centers, barbershops, tattoo parlors, salons, massage parlors, casinos, bingo halls, bowling alleys, skating rinks and other indoor recreational establishments. They had previously been limited to 50% capacity.

While the state is lifting capacity limits, social distancing requirements mean the businesses cannot be packed with customers, and local authorities have the final say over how many people can enter.

What about Camden Yards? Pimlico? Conferences? Weddings?

Hogan expanded the state’s capacity limits for large venues to 50% and said he is looking forward to attending the Orioles’ home opener against the Red Sox on April 8.

“Hopefully, it’s going to be a beautiful day,” the governor said.

The Orioles, Major League Baseball and the state health department are working on proposed regulations that include social distancing in lines and spaced-out seating, Hogan noted.

What he left out: That Baltimore City leaders have not yet decided whether to allow fans inside Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Pimlico Race Course or other large venues. Though the wording of the governor’s new executive order left some confusion on local governments’ authority to set more restrictive guidelines, Hogan and his aides told reporters they could continue to do so. So it’s not yet clear when any fans will be allowed to attend a game, race or other major affair.

“Baltimore will continue to lean on the direction of healthcare professionals and local data on COVID-19 hospitalizations, deaths, and new cases to shape reopening efforts in Baltimore,” Mayor Brandon Scott said in a news release. “My office will work with the Baltimore City Health Department and the Law Department to review the Governor’s executive order and determine the best path forward.”

The Orioles are awaiting approvals from all parties involved, including Major League Baseball and Baltimore City, before announcing plans for whether and how fans might be able to attend.

As with bars and restaurants, attendance at Orioles games and the Preakness Stakes, which has not yet been scheduled but is typically run the third Saturday in May — along with conferences, weddings, concerts, theater shows and other large events — must allow for social distancing. And it isn’t up to the governor alone, with local leaders having the final say.

Of course, people were quick to point out that with the beleaguered Orioles rebuilding the franchise, an overfilled ballpark might not be a major concern this season.

What other businesses will be kept at 50% capacity?

Convention centers, conference facilities, banquet and catering facilities, community halls, and social clubs, “including without limitation, hotel ballrooms,” must remain at half capacity, according to the order.

What remains closed?

All senior citizen activities centers must remain closed, according to the governor’s order.

What about post-travel quarantines? Advice on remote work?

Quarantine requirements and other restrictions regarding out-of-state travel will be lifted, although a state health department advisory will remain in place, urging Marylanders who travel to get tested upon their return.

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The state is encouraging employers to continue allowing for remote work “when possible,” citing contact tracing showing COVID-19 transmission among co-workers in offices.

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With Maryland still under a state of emergency and fewer than 10% of residents vaccinated, isn’t it still too soon to be relaxing restrictions?

During the news conference, Hogan acknowledged that the limited supply of vaccines Maryland has received from the federal government isn’t expected to increase for weeks.

Asked twice by reporters why he is loosening restrictions this week rather than waiting for more than 10% of state residents to be vaccinated, Hogan leaned on statistics showing significantly improved — albeit flattening — coronavirus metrics.

Maryland’s case rate per 100,000 has dropped by more than 76%, and the positivity rate has declined by more than 64%, to just 3.4%, the governor said. Hospitalizations and cases in nursing homes have decreased significantly from their mid-December peaks, he said.

“We’ve been trending in a good direction for about a month now,” Hogan said. “We’re seeing a little bit of a leveling, but no increases. We’re not going down at as fast a pace, but we’re still heading in the right direction. And the numbers are so low. I mean, we’re at [a] 3% positivity [rate]; we’re one of the best in the country. Our transmission rate, our cases per 100,000 — all of them look really good.

“The fact that we’re now, 54% of the eligible population has been vaccinated, and that’s going to ramp up dramatically here by the end of March, beginning of April. We just feel like it’s a good time.”

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