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Howard County reimplements social gathering restrictions as coronavirus numbers rise

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball on Monday announced a tightening of restrictions after daily coronavirus positivity numbers in the county exceeded 5%.

The new restrictions, set to go into effect at 5 p.m. Tuesday, include prohibiting indoor gatherings of more than 10 people and outdoor gatherings of more than 25 people.

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Indoor and outdoor social gatherings restricted by the new executive order by Ball include family gatherings, parties, cookouts, parades, festivals, conventions, fundraisers, and other gatherings not associated with operating or patronizing a business that sells merchandise. The order does not include retail stores, religious gatherings, wedding receptions, indoor theaters and outdoor entertainment venues.

“When COVID-19 becomes this widespread, it makes it very difficult for contact tracing to be effective in identifying and isolation outbreaks,” Ball said at Monday’s news conference. “As we approach Thanksgiving and our winter holidays, it is vital that we act swiftly and thoughtfully to stop this spike in cases, keep our residents safe and well, and continue to support our business community. Our contact tracing efforts show that a majority of transmission of the COVID-19 virus has been from close relatives, family and friends.”

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On Thursday and Friday, there were 76 and 72 positive cases in the county, respectively, with a total of 472 new cases last week, Ball said Monday. And two of last seven days have seen daily positivity rates of over 5%, according to the Howard County Health Department.

The county reported a seven-day positivity rate of 4.97% on Saturday, which measures the percent at which tests return positive over a week, according to the Maryland Department of Health. That was the highest rate in the county since the end of June. On Sunday, Howard saw a rate of 21.45 per 100,000 people test positive for COVID-19, which was the highest reported rate in the county since the beginning of the pandemic, according to state data.

As of Monday, the county health department has reported 6,758 confirmed coronavirus cases and 139 deaths since March.

Ball’s announcement comes after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan tightened coronavirus restrictions last week, returning indoor restaurant service to 50% capacity and discouraging gatherings of more than 25 people.

The announcement in Howard follows several other nearby jurisdictions in Maryland that have tightened coronavirus restrictions as numbers across the state increase.

Like Howard, Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties have limited gatherings to 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors. Prince George’s has also limited restaurants to 25% capacity, down from 50%, while Anne Arundel will do so starting Nov. 20. All bars and restaurants in Baltimore County also will be required to close at midnight.

In addition to limiting indoor gatherings to 10 people, all indoor and outdoor facilities, including restaurants, gyms and theaters, were ordered to not exceed 25% capacity as of Thursday in Baltimore City. All bars that don’t serve food were to shut down, and all restaurants must close by 11 p.m.

In Montgomery County, gatherings were limited to 25 people and restaurants, gyms, museums, retail establishments and religious facilities were all limited to 25% capacity last week, while Harford County closed county facilities to the public starting Friday, including indoor parks and recreation facilities.

Shafeeq Ahmed, interim president at Howard County General Hospital, said Monday the increase in coronavirus patients has been rapid.

“As reported by the other entities here [at the news conference], Howard County General Hospital has been seeing an increase in our COVID-19 patients. We haven’t seen this level since the first surge,” Ahmed said.

Ahmed said the hospital took time over the summer to prepare for a potential second surge and is now prepared to meet the increased demand. In the meantime, both elected and emergency surgeries at Howard County’s only hospital are continuing.

Howard County Police Department Chief Lisa Myers said the department has not had to issue citations for noncompliance of COVID-19 restrictions thus far, saying voluntary compliance by residents is the goal.

“Issuing citations will be our absolute last resort. We will do it if we must under the direction of the governor and the county executive,” Myers said Monday.

The increasing coronavirus numbers are also playing an impact on schools in the county. A few hours after Ball’s announcement, Howard County school system Superintendent Michael Martirano announced the suspension of all in-person support programs.

Ball also announced Monday the Department of Recreation and Parks was canceling all tournaments that include out-of-state participants. However, Howard County rec and parks leagues, programs and in-state tournaments will continue playing.

Two weeks ago, Glenelg Country School temporarily stopped hybrid learning and went back to a fully virtual model after reporting three positive coronavirus cases. The number of cases, according to the Maryland Department of Health’s website as of Nov. 11, at the Ellicott City-based private school, which went back to its hybrid model last week, has grown to eight.

Manor Woods Elementary School, meanwhile, had two cases as of Nov. 11, the most recent data available. Manor Woods is one of about two dozen in Howard County that is providing in-person, small group programs to some of the district’s students.

The return of high school sports in Howard County also hit a small speed bump last week due to rising coronavirus numbers. Voluntary conditioning was supposed to begin Monday, but the school system announced in a news release that the workouts were canceled “due to a recent rapid escalation of COVID-19 cases in Howard County.”

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The announcement, however, does not change the current plan for high school athletics. Winter sports practices are currently scheduled to begin Dec. 7, with the first athletic competitions beginning Jan. 4 and ending Feb. 13. Fall sports under this plan would begin Feb. 13 and conclude competitions April 17. Spring sports would begin April 17 and end June 19.

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However, the sports plan, as well as any hybrid learning model, is subject to the status of the coronavirus metrics in the county. In October, the Board of Education voted on health parameters the school system will follow when making reopening decisions in the future.

To move into a hybrid model for the second semester which begins Feb. 1, the board determined that the seven-day positivity rate in Howard County should be less than 5% and the seven-day rolling average new-case rate should be less than 10 per 100,000.

According to the health metrics the board approved in October, the current coronavirus numbers in the county would allow for conditioning and noncontact practices for high school teams, but not athletic competitions, if the season does begin Dec. 7.

The county school board has a reopening work session Monday afternoon on the district’s reopening plan. The board will vote on whether to adopt the plan Thursday.

“We must remember that each case and each death is one of our Howard County neighbors, not a mere number on a dashboard,” Howard County Health Officer Maura Rossman said Monday. “We knew that this fight against COVID[-19] would be a marathon and not a sprint.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Christine Condon, Ben Leonard and Christina Tkacik, and Baltimore Sun Media editor S. Wayne Carter Jr. and reporters Donovan Conaway and Brooks DuBose contributed to this article.

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