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Baltimore County will ease capacity restrictions on businesses Friday, matching state rules

Baltimore County will loosen coronavirus-related capacity limits on restaurants, bars, stores and religious establishments starting at 5 p.m. Friday, following Gov. Larry Hogan’s lead, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. announced.

The county will end capacity limits on outdoor and indoor dining at restaurants and bars, retail businesses, religious facilities, fitness centers, casinos, personal services and indoor recreational establishments — but those businesses still must maintain social distancing.

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Theaters and concert, convention and wedding venues may operate at 50% capacity under the new county order.

Currently, statewide orders limit bars and restaurants to no more than 50% capacity, both indoors and outdoors. A statewide mask requirement remains in place for public indoor facilities and outdoors when social distancing isn’t possible.

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Olszewski also is lifting restrictions on social gatherings, currently no more than 10 people indoors and 25 outdoors, and is eliminating restrictions on amateur sports events, effective at 5 p.m. Friday.

At bars, restaurants and other places with food service, customers must be seated to be served and tables must be arranged with six feet of distance between them. And face coverings still are required indoors by the state for those older than 4.

A new executive order will be issued retaining the county’s cap on fees that third-parties charge restaurants to process orders and deliver food.

The county is “prepared to take steps to increase restrictions, as needed,” should data indicate that Hogan’s further reopening of businesses “creates a detrimental impact to the health, safety, and welfare of our residents,” according to a news release.

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The county will monitor key metrics, including hospitalizations and positive coronavirus case numbers, when considering whether to tighten restrictions again, according to county spokesman Sean Naron.

But it’s unclear how local jurisdictions may impose tighter restrictions than the state. Hogan’s executive order scrapped language from previous edicts that allowed local leaders to set limits to help “save lives or prevent exposure to COVID,” although he has said counties and Baltimore City still may impose tighter restrictions.

Despite the reopening plans, Olszewski, like other local leaders, was critical of “the state’s patchwork approach” in its coronavirus response, which “creates confusion and limits our ability to significantly impact public health,” he said in a statement.

“The pandemic is not over and we cannot let our guard down now,” he said.

The move comes as Baltimore County, the state’s third-most-populous jurisdiction, continues to outpace the largest of Maryland’s 24 counties in vaccinations, putting second shots in the arms of 12% of its population. New cases also have tapered off.

As of Thursday, the county’s seven-day testing positivity rate, which measures the percentage of tests that return positive results, was 3.89%. That’s marginally higher than the state’s, which ticked up slightly to 3.58% Thursday.

Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties also have announced they will ease restrictions this week.

Baltimore City Mayor Brandon Scott, however, announced Thursday the city would not ease restrictions at Hogan’s pace, but he provided no additional details.

With St. Patrick’s Day looming next weekend, some Baltimore-area bar owners expect to see more crowds, although social distancing mandates mean they’ll still have to limit capacity.

The Guinness Open Gate Brewery in Halethorpe — the only U.S. brewery operated by the Dublin-based beer maker — has planned a month-long St. Patrick’s Day celebration this year in lieu of the weekend-long celebration that in recent years has drawn thousands.

In a statement, Michael Donilon, Guinness Open Gate’s general manager, said easing restrictions doesn’t change the brewery’s plans, which include “socially-distant” live music, dancers and movies, special beers and traditional Irish fare from Thursday through Sunday since March 4. The brewery will be open on St. Patrick’s Day on March 17.

Donilon said the brewery is fortunate to have a 2-acre campus and sizable outdoor space.

“The monthlong celebration was a strategic decision with the safety of our guests and staff in mind, so we aren’t encouraging a large gathering on just one weekend,” he said.

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