As Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced the lifting of most COVID-19 restrictions, the pace of coronavirus vaccinations in Harford County has slowed, and local officials are encouraging residents to get the shot to meet the governor’s threshold for rescinding the state’s indoor mask order.
Once at least 70% of adults in the state get at least one dose of the vaccine, Maryland will lift indoor masking requirements, Hogan announced at a news conference Wednesday. That threshold does not account for children, most of whom are not yet eligible for the shot. Seventy percent of the adult population represents less than 55% of Maryland’s total population of more than 6 million people. According to state data, Maryland recently surpassed 65% of adults with at least one shot.
Bars and restaurants will be allowed to reopen at full capacity beginning Saturday and indoor and outdoor venues will also be permitted to fully reopen, though masking rules will still apply, the governor also announced. While counties can still be more restrictive than state guidelines, Harford County will reopen as much as allowable, County Executive Barry Glassman said.
For Nathan Hayes, activities director at Black Eyed Suzie’s restaurant in downtown Bel Air, the governor’s lifting of restrictions will not change the inside of the restaurant out of the gate. They have a lot to shift around and are still figuring out the details, but sometime next week the restaurant will be returned to normal, though masks will still be required. Already, live music has been booked for Saturday and Sunday, he said.
Because of the relaxed restrictions, patrons of Black Eyed Suzie’s can mill around the restaurant and stand at the bar, Hayes said, which they have been missing. It also allows them to get closer to the bands. Under earlier restrictions, customers had to stay in their seats.
“You can kind of get more of an energy instead of everybody just stuck in their seats the whole time,” he said.
As reopening continues, the restaurant is hiring more staff back, though some employees have chosen to go into different professions or return to school. Hayes said. The governor’s restrictions cut into the business’ earnings, so Hayes was glad to hear the restrictions were being relaxed. He did not think the governor was moving too fast, but the restaurant will continue to be careful as it has been through the pandemic.
“I think you’ll see the shops are busier ... I think there will be more people out doing things,” he said. “I just think it’s going to be very positive overall.”
But as restrictions are set to be relaxed, the rate at which Harford County residents are getting vaccinated has slowed.
According to data from the county health department, 48% of the Harford’s total population has gotten at least one shot, but just 1.1% or 2,877 people got vaccinated in seven days before May 9, the latest data available. In total, 121,337 county residents had gotten at least one shot by that same date.
Harford County Health Officer David Bishai said, when weighted, about 61% of the county’s adults have been vaccinated. The state’s average is being pulled up by Montgomery County’s performance, and Harford’s slowdown in new vaccinations is about average compared to other jurisdictions.
Roughly a third of the county’s population that has not yet been vaccinated is on the fence about getting the shot, while another two-thirds have made up their mind not to get it, Bishai estimated. Those holding back are most concerned about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, he said.
“All I can do is hope with information that might change,” Bishai said.
The health department is encouraging doctors to check in with their patients and talk about getting vaccinated, Bishai said. While some younger people do not visit their doctors regularly, he is encouraging physicians to reach out to patients and talk.
“Today, that conversation has to be talking about what is holding you back from getting vaccinated,” he said.
County and state officials have been encouraging residents to get vaccinated — sometimes calling in high-profile allies to help get the word out.
Earlier this month, Baltimore Orioles legend and baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. joined Hogan to visit the mass vaccination site at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen to encourage people to get vaccinated. The drive-through clinic is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays with or without an appointment.
Glassman has encouraged everyone to get vaccinated to contribute to the governor’s 70% goal and hasten the return to normal.
The weekly volume of vaccines administered had tapered off, he said, and pockets of vaccine hesitancy clearly exist in the county. Like Bishai, he thinks about a third of the population has taken a “wait and see” approach, and that they are likely to come around.
“We have got to continue to encourage folks to get their vaccine,” Glassman said. “We can only keep progressing if we’re building up that immunity in the county.”
With summer approaching, Glassman said it is likely that county residents will be outside more often, where the risk of viral transmission is lower. But when county residents spend more time inside during the fall and winter, the number of vaccines distributed will matter more.
“The more folks we have vaccinated, the stronger the county will be when and if we get some reoccurrence,” he said.
Latest Harford County
According to state coronavirus data, Harford County’s positivity rate was 3.46% Wednesday, just above the state average of 2.66%. It had briefly dipped below 3% earlier in the week, the lowest the rate has been since before Halloween. The county also reported fewer than 8 new cases per 100,000 for the first time since late October.