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Harford’s COVID-19 metrics improving slightly ahead of Thanksgiving, Black Friday shopping

Harford County’s average case rate dropped for the first time nearly a month Tuesday, but is still trending above the statewide average and thresholds established by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

After the local average case rate peaked at 47.26 cases per 100,000 on Monday, that metric decreased to 44.07 Tuesday. The state’s average case rate also decreased slightly from a high of 38.3 Monday to 38.14 Tuesday.

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The county’s positivity rate has been on the decline for four consecutive days after reaching a six-month high of 9.88% last Thursday. It has since dropped 8.74%, but is still trending more than 2 percentage points above the statewide rate of 6.6% Tuesday.

The WHO and CDC recommended the average case rate be less than 15 per 100,000 people and the positivity rate be below 5% to be considered low transmission and loosening restrictions.

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Both seven-day moving average case rate and positivity rate in Harford County had been increasing daily since Oct. 29 until the recent change in trajectory.

The Maryland Department of Health reported Tuesday exactly 5,600 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Harford, with more than 770 cases added since this time last week. Two additional deaths due to COVID have been reported in the same time frame, bringing the county’s death toll to 85.

The decreases have come after frequent warnings and restrictions on bars and restaurants from Gov. Larry Hogan in recent weeks.

On Monday, Hogan announced Maryland was ramping up enforcement of coronavirus restrictions ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday as the pandemic surges just as people usually gather with family and socialize in bars.

In addition to family gatherings on the holiday itself, the night before Thanksgiving has become one of the biggest bar-hopping nights of the year as people return to their hometowns and catch up with old friends over drinks.

“I cannot emphasize how reckless that behavior would be this year,” the Republican governor said during a news conference in the State House rotunda in Annapolis.

Health officials already have advised people to celebrate Thanksgiving with their immediate households only, and Maryland’s bars and restaurants have a state-mandated 10 p.m. closing time.

“These important safety measures and public health orders are only effective if they are being followed and enforced,” Hogan said.

To that end, the Maryland State Police will send out “high visibility compliance units” to several parts of the state, including Bel Air.

Extra state troopers also will be assigned to work with local police and health officials on education and enforcement of the pandemic restrictions, which also include capacity limits, physical distancing requirements and rules that patrons must be seated in order to be served. They will focus on all venues that host gatherings, such as bars, restaurants and banquet halls.

The state also is expanding its 24-hour hotline for reporting violations, which can be reached— via 833-979-2266 or Prevent.Covid@maryland.gov.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman said Monday he would leave the decisions on how to best approach enforcement of COVID-19 guidelines to the sheriff’s office and the county’s health department.

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The Harford County Sheriff’s Office, however, has no plans to change its strategy regarding compliance, spokesperson Cristie Hopkins said. She noted that while Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler and Maryland State Police Secretary Col. Woodrow “Jerry” Jones have frequent communication on issues of public safety, Jones has not requested assistance from Harford sheriff’s deputies with compliance checks.

“As such, we will continue to respond in the same manner we have been since the outset of the pandemic, utilizing education to gain compliance,” Hopkins said. “At this time, we see no reason to modify this strategy.”

Glassman has acknowledged Harford’s high metrics — “We are in a community spread surge situation, there is no ifs, ands or buts about that,” he said Monday — but has no plans to enact further restrictions in Harford County beyond what is recommended by the state.

Earlier in the month, he closed county office buildings and ordered that outdoor sporting events such as youth tournaments and recreational activities at county-owned fields and facilities be suspended, after local contact tracing showed tournaments and similar events that were drawing upward of 1,000 people to the fields were spreading the virus.

Most county residents and businesses have complied with the governor’s orders, Glassman said, and the county health department tries to educate accidental or intentional offenders before it takes punitive action. Glassman said he did not plan on setting up a COVID-compliance task force like Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. has to inspect more than 7,000 establishments in his jurisdiction.

“He is not planning any heavy-handed enforcement actions because he believes Harford County citizens will do the right thing and keep everyone safe and protect businesses and keep them open,” Cindy Mumby, a spokesperson for the administration, added Tuesday.

Glassman continues to monitor the metrics, which he expects to ebb and flow throughout the winter months, she said.

Ronya Nassar, the Harford County Health Department’s Health Policy Analyst, said officials continue to see evidence of community transmission, even as the numbers are starting to decrease.

“Contact tracing data from the state continues to show that people are gathering in groups of 10 or more and going to high-risk locations,” she said.

Keeping Thanksgiving celebrations limited to people living in your household remains the safest way to celebrate, Nassar said.

“If you do plan to spend Thanksgiving with people outside of your household, we are advising people to take steps to make their celebration safer,” she said.

For example, an aunt or uncle visiting should wear a mask in the house and folks should spread out 6 feet apart at dinner. Any children returning from college should try to get a COVID test as soon as possible, she said.

Health officials are also concerned about people starting Christmas shopping in physical stores this weekend.

“We highly recommend people to stay home for Black Friday shopping this weekend and take advantage of online shopping,” Nassar said. “If a business does not have online shopping, we recommend that people visit these places during slower times of the day.”

Calling stores ahead of time to see when they are less busy and, if you know what items you want to purchase, asking if they can prepare an order for a curbside pickup are options, she said.

People who must shop in-person should be aware of their surroundings, socially distant themselves from others, practice good hygiene, and properly wear a mask, according to Nassar.

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Businesses should communicate COVID-19 policies clearly to all patrons and screen employees before they start work, she said.

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Baltimore Sun reporters Pamela Wood and Hallie Miller contributed to this article.

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