Harford County Executive Barry Glassman said the county will open as much as allowable on Friday after Gov. Larry Hogan announced the easing of some coronavirus-related restrictions on Marylanders.
Of localities with 500 or more confirmed cases, Harford has the lowest number of cases and deaths per capita, Glassman said, contributing to the decision to reopen the county as much as possible — though other metrics like hospitalizations and available beds weighed in the determination as well.
"We feel like we are ready to reopen, and I will instruct our folks to go ahead and begin that process,” Glassman said. "I think it’s a good start ... We have to start somewhere.”
On Friday, at 5 p.m., the governor’s stay-at-home order will be lifted, though Marylanders will still be encouraged to work from home and stay indoors if possible. Cloth masks and social distancing are still recommended, as well as avoidance of crowds of 10 or more people. The prohibition on gatherings is not being lifted.
The state has seen 14 days of plateauing in hospitalization figures, Hogan said at a Wednesday news conference.
“Maryland and our nation can now, at least begin to, slowly begin to recover,” Hogan said.
Retail businesses like bookstores, car washes and clothing stores will be permitted to reopen at up to 50% capacity, according to the order, but delivery and curbside pickup will be strongly encouraged where it can be. Manufacturing will also be permitted to resume, and houses of worship can begin offering services again at up to 50% capacity. The order strongly recommends outdoor religious services.
Personal services like barber shops and beauty salons will also be allowed to open at up to 50% capacity, Hogan said, but may only be visited by appointment.
Glassman said that, while he has not received further guidance on the order, it is unlikely restaurants will be allowed to reopen their dining rooms. He hoped they would be allowed something beyond curbside pickup and delivery, but “that does not look like it is going to be in the order,” he said,
Local governments cannot exceed the governor’s guidelines for reopening, the order states, and some county executives from Maryland’s largest counties have expressed apprehension about a sudden reopening. Most of Maryland’s cases are concentrated in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, as well as Baltimore and Baltimore County.
“We fully understand not all counties are in the same situation,” Hogan said.
As of Thursday, the state had reported almost 36,000 cases and confirmed nearly 1,750 deaths.
Harford County accounted for 663 cases and 28 confirmed COVID-related deaths as of Thursday. That represented a 34-case spike from Wednesday, the county’s biggest single-day increase in new confirmed cases since May 3. More than half of Thursday’s new cases were in the Bel Air North 21014 ZIP code, which jumped from 118 to 136, according to the latest data.
County executives did not have an advance idea of the measures Hogan would take, Glassman said, and counties are free to open at their own paces as long as they do not exceed the governor’s guidelines. While Glassman said Harford plans to reopen as much as possible, other counties may take more time.
With other counties deliberating on the reopening, Glassman said Harford could see travelers coming from elsewhere in the state, such as neighboring Baltimore County, to visit open businesses.
"You will see, if it is a stark difference between counties, I think you will see folks traveling a little bit,” he said. "It is just hard to predict.”
Harford officials would have to monitor the situation to avoid any recursive cycle where more people collect and expose themselves to potential infection, but strong enforcement of social distancing guidelines and mask wearing could help, Glassman said.
Glassman is the only Republican among the leadership for the county’s eight largest jurisdictions, some of whom indicated they would work in conjunction with each other to reopen at a slower pace. Glassman said his decision to open Harford County to the fullest extent possible was not politically motivated. Politicking, actually, has been minimal throughout the process, he said. The decisions are based more on the severity of a county’s infection.
"I have worked with these guys,” he said. “We are from different parties and so forth, but on this one, I think, it is based on where we are and our numbers.”
Though some officials have intimated counties would form a pact to coordinate reopening, Glassman clarified there was “no hard-and-fast pact."
Businesses, Glassman said, are anxious to reopen, and the county should have a share of its federal CARES Act funding by Friday, which can be doled out to businesses that need to refit their stores to be more compliant with social distancing or safer from the virus.
And that, Glassman said, might become the new normal. He expects flare ups and fluctuations in the number of cases as testing increases, and for prophylactic measures against the virus to stick around for six months or a year — until a vaccine can be made and widely delivered.
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"I think we are going to be in it for the long-haul,” he said.
Likewise, Hogan cautioned that the easing of these restrictions does not mean the crisis is done with.
"It does not mean we are safe or this crisis is over,” Hogan said.
The decision to reopen the state was made by tracking hospitalizations, rate of new deaths the number of ICU patients and other factors, which have plateaued.
If the reopening proceeds without a spike in the relevant metrics, Hogan said, the state can proceed into the next stage of the plan. Still, he acknowledged that the virus is not going away, and stressed that Maryland is not in the clear; it may not be for some time. If cases spike, he said, the transition to the next phase would slow.
“The painful truth is that this virus will continue to be with us and be a part of our daily lives, and potential outbreaks will continue to remain a deadly threat until a vaccine is widely available,” he said.