Outdoor sporting events, including tournaments that would sometimes bringing more than 1,000 people to Harford County fields, are being suspended after they were identified as potential reasons for the county’s recent spike in COVID-19 cases.
The seven-day moving average case rate in Harford County reached a new pandemic high of 25.28 per 100,000 people, according to state data released Thursday morning, and the positivity rate reached 7.36%. Both metrics have been climbing for the past two weeks.
The total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the county reached 4,329 Thursday, including 81 deaths.
Hospitalizations for coronavirus reported by Upper Chesapeake Health at its medical facilities in Bel Air and Havre de Grace total 28, with nine in critical care. That’s nearly double the 15 COVID-related hospitalizations UCH reported Monday, according to county officials.
County Executive Barry Glassman said Thursday he had been receiving complaints about tournaments being held at Cedar Lane Park in the Creswell area, as well as other county fields, with large crowds that included people not wearing face masks.
“There had been some concerns over the past couple of weeks about very large crowds, probably in excess of 1,000 people and in a couple of instances with enforcement folks asking people to mask, finding some resistance to do that,” Glassman said.
Those tournaments are organized by the nonprofit Cedar Lane Sports Foundation, the county executive said.
John McHugh, the executive director of the Foundation, said he had been talking with government officials all week and understood the decision.
“The numbers are way up in Harford County, I knew where they were heading,” McHugh said, adding the administration has been very supportive of the organization.
“We’ve had 24 tournaments since we were allowed to in July, we’ve had over 100,000 people come through there,” he said. "This morning they had to make some tough decisions regarding parks and rec, schools and all their programming and I couldn’t disagree with them.”
Glassman said there were a few more weekend tournaments scheduled, but with COVID-19 metrics going up daily, he couldn’t afford to wait.
“They were getting close to the end of their season, but we’re still gaining 50 to 60 cases a night, and I think the numbers are getting bad enough we couldn’t wait until Dec. 1 or something,” Glassman said. “I had to pull the plug on those.”
Molly Mraz, a spokesperson for the Harford County Health Department, said sporting events were one of the top 10 contributors to COVID-19 spread in the county based on local contact tracing.
“We have received numerous complaints about this topic and we have been in communication with the people who run the events and our community leaders to make sure everyone is following the Governor’s orders,” Mraz said. “We cannot stress enough how important it is to wear a mask, keep the 6 feet distance, and to avoid large crowds.”
The county also moved to close indoor parks and recreation facilities, which will include gymnasiums at Harford County Public Schools, where many of those activities are held.
“Indoor activities in general are higher risk than outdoor, so before basketball season starts in a few weeks, we figured we better just suspend that too right now so people can make plans,” Glassman said.
County parks will remain open with social distancing requirements in place, as they were in the spring.
These were among several measures Glassman announced would go in place at 5 p.m. Friday in response to the rising number of coronavirus cases in the county. Many of the actions mirrored those taken in the spring, when the pandemic first took hold. Those include closing county facilities to the public and authorizing county government employees to telework until further notice.
The measures will stay in place until local health metrics improve.
“Public safety is my top priority in responding to this recent surge and my long term goal is to keep our economy and government services open for business,” Glassman said in a statement announcing the measures. "I understand the inconvenience, but I believe these actions will put us in a stronger position with COVID-19 cases on the rise in Harford County and beyond.
“As the pandemic wears on and we head into colder weather, I also want to remind folks to continue handwashing, social distancing and wearing a mask when required,” he continued. “These three simple steps can save lives.”
With county facilities closing, drop boxes at the county administration building at 220 S. Main St. in Bel Air, were being reactivated for payments and documents, and selected programming offered by the county’s parks and recreation department has been moved to online. Harford Transit LINK will also resume modified transportation service.
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In addition to these measures, Glassman also ordered 1,500 rapid COVID-19 tests for potential cases in county government and allied agencies such as law enforcement, volunteer fire companies, the public school system and the county’s health department.
The county used roughly $58,000 of the nearly $45 million it received in federal CARES Act funding to pay for the tests, as well as 25 devices needed to read them.
“It’s really a mechanism in our Continuity of Operations plan to make sure if we get an outbreak in a vital service area, we can do some rapid testing and keep operational,” the county executive said. “We think it’s a good practice to have that bank of rapid tests, in case I get an outbreak in emergency services or water and sewer.”
Keeping the county’s 9-1-1 dispatch center, water and sewer operations and with winter and the potential for snowfall coming, the county’s highways department operation, are essential government functions, Glassman said.
“Those are things that we can’t put off,” he said.
He’s also split the workforce essentially into two teams, which each taking a week working at county offices while the other teleworks, then switching, so in case there is an outbreak among one of the groups, government would still have personnel needed to function.
Aegis sports editor Randy McRoberts contributed to this article.