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Maryland Gov. Hogan holds off on new coronavirus restrictions, defends outdoor dining as some counties tighten guidelines

"All the top public health doctors and epidemiologists and experts they told us in the very beginning that outdoor dining is safe," said Governor Hogan.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced a package to soften the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, but he ordered no new restrictions on business or social activities and said he would not “be dictated to” by counties taking more aggressive measures.

His comments Thursday highlighted a widening gap between the approaches taken by the Republican governor and some of the state’s largest, Democrat-led jurisdictions as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise.

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“As from the beginning, county leaders are able to make their own decisions about being more restrictive, and they have,” Hogan said at a State House news conference after Maryland reported its second-highest daily total ever for new cases.

“Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, and in some cases Montgomery or Prince George’s, have been taking different actions than us for nine months, and I respect their right to do that,” he said.

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But, he said, “we’re not going to be dictated to — what we should do — based on what one or two other people decided to do.”

Hogan’s update came the day after new Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, a Democrat, ordered all dining at city restaurants halted, permitting only carryout, drive-thru and delivery service. The tightened restrictions, which go into effect at 5 p.m. Friday and do not have an end date, include caps at 25% of capacity for retail and religious institutions, gyms, malls and museums.

Anne Arundel County said Thursday that it also is halting indoor and outdoor dining, starting at 5 p.m. Wednesday until Jan. 13. Retail stores, fitness centers, casinos, nail and hair salons must scale back to 25% capacity, Democratic County Executive Steuart Pittman said.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, a Democrat, has sent a proposal to the county council to close indoor dining at restaurants and food courts and set new capacity limits for large retail stores, amateur sporting events and religious gatherings, starting at 5 p.m. Tuesday. Prince George’s County is barring indoor dining while still permitting outdoor dining at 50% capacity.

Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, a Democrat, and others have called for a coordinated response so counties collectively don’t have a patchwork of restrictions.

Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, Baltimore’s health commissioner, said it’s been “challenging” for localities to make choices to tighten restrictions without the backing of statewide rules from Hogan.

”We have 11 hospitals, more than any other jurisdiction in the state,” Dzirasa said. “We’re going to bear the brunt when we look at hospitalizations here for Baltimore City. And so, given that, it would be great to have a statewide approach.”

Hogan said the state will continue “to take every single action that we believe is appropriate based on the data and the metrics.”

The governor took issue in particular with those who would ban outdoor dining, saying, “In all of our hundreds of discussions with all the top public health doctors and epidemiologists and experts, they told us in the very beginning that outdoor dining is safe.”

Former Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen said the city and Anne Arundel County may have chosen to prohibit outdoor as well as indoor dining to send a strong message about potentially risky behavior.

She said outdoor dining can be risky, particularly if it involves people from different households gathering together.

”We are on the precipice of a public health calamity,” said Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University in Washington. “And so, we have to take some dramatic measures here. So, I understand the desperation that many local health officials are facing.”

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Hogan said the state’s goal was health and safety — and to keep as many small businesses afloat as possible.

”It’s a delicate balance and we basically are looking at those levers every day,” he said.

The governor focused on business Thursday, announcing a financial assistance package.

One program provides unemployment tax relief for small businesses. Under an executive order, an employer’s 2021 tax rate will be based on their “nonpandemic experience” by excluding the 2020 fiscal year. Instead, the rate will be determined by using fiscal years 2017, 2018 and 2019.

“This is welcome news for small business owners in Maryland,” said Mike O’Halloran, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business.

O’Halloran said employers still will face large increases in unemployment taxes, “but had it not been for the action taken today by Governor Hogan, those taxes would have gone even higher for employers forced to lay off workers because of government shutdowns.”

Hogan also announced forgiveness of $75 million in emergency state business loans. The loans, provided during the first round of economic relief, will be converted to grants.

Donald Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, called the measures “a first good step to mitigate the economic stress many small business are encountering as they struggle to stay operational.”

The governor again urged Congress to provide a new round of economic relief for Americans and businesses during the pandemic. Democrats and Republicans in Washington have yet to agree on what should be included and how large a package to enact.

In March, Maryland bars, restaurants, movie theaters and gyms closed their doors under an unprecedented order by Hogan to slow the initial outbreak. Grocery stores, banks, pharmacies and other essential services remained open but with restrictions.

Those restrictions began to ease in May, but Hogan and governors across the nation have revisited the rules as cases have risen again. Last month, Hogan ordered a 10 p.m. closing time for restaurants, limited capacity at stores and houses of worship to 50%, banned fans from sports stadiums and racetracks, and halted most visitation at hospitals and nursing homes.

Experts predicted coronavirus case increases due to Thanksgiving celebrations and travel probably would start showing up in data this week. Maryland reported 3,202, cases and 49 deaths tied to COVID-19 on Thursday, and set a record high for hospitalizations for the second consecutive day.

The state now has reported 1,000 or more confirmed virus cases for 37 consecutive days after rarely doing so between early June and this stretch.

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“It is clear we are experiencing a post-Thanksgiving surge and that the worst days of the pandemic are still ahead of us,” Hogan said.

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