Governor Larry Hogan announced starting May 29th restaurants will be able to reopen with outdoor seating. Hogan also lifted restrictions on youth sports, pools.
Gov. Larry Hogan announced Wednesday the state would ease more restrictions on businesses and gatherings due to the deadly coronavirus pandemic ― moving to permit outdoor dining at restaurants, the return of youth sports and camps, and the reopening of pools and drive-in movies.
Even as the number of infections and deaths continues to rise in Maryland, the Republican governor said the state is making progress against the virus ― which has claimed the lives of more than 2,200 Marylanders ― and has significantly cut its rate of residents testing positive.
“Though we continue to make great progress toward recovery, COVID-19 is still very much a deadly threat, and our responsible behavior is absolutely critical in the continued efforts to defeat it,” Hogan said. “Thankfully, the vast majority of our citizens clearly understand that while doing things like avoiding crowds, practicing distancing, and wearing masks may be inconvenient, that these are some of the best tools we have to continue to slow the spread of this virus, and to put us in a position to rebuild and restore our economy.”
Effective Friday at 5 p.m., the governor said he would allow restaurants to reopen for outdoor dining as long as patrons are seated at least six feet away from each other (excluding family members) and establishments maintain additional sanitation practices. Hogan said restaurants must screen their staff for fevers and require the use of masks and gloves. The governor also encouraged local jurisdictions to close streets to allow restaurants to use the space for tables.
The governor said youth sports also may resume for “low-contact” practices outdoors in limited groups; and youth day camps could restart outdoor activities in groups no more than 10, providing the camps require masks and engage in daily COVID-19 symptom checks.
Hogan also said outdoor pools may reopen at 25% capacity with strict sanitation measures in place and drive-in movie theaters could resume operations.
But local governments will continue to have the discretion to adopt Hogan’s steps — or not. Local leaders said they were not given a head’s up about the governor’s announcement beforehand.
Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties have been slower to ease restrictions, citing concerns about having the ability to identify cases and limit the spread of the virus.
Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young planned to meet with his health advisers before deciding whether to adopt the next steps in reopening, said his spokesman, Lester Davis. Earlier in the week, Young, a Democrat, allowed curbside pick-up at retail shops and laid out a plan for eventually allowing restaurants to add outdoor seating.
“There’s a huge desire to want to get people back to work and try to get some dining options beyond just carryout and delivery going ... We’re sensitive to that,” Davis said. “We’ve got to balance that with the what the data is showing us that we can reasonably do.”
Davis said decisions will be announced “in the coming days.”
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. also is taking time to decide whether to allow the new activities in his county, said spokesman Sean Naron.
Olszewski’s considerations will include whether to allow Bengies Drive-In Theater in Middle River — the state’s only drive-in — to reopen, as allowed by Hogan’s new order. Olszewski had pushed to have the theater included, arguing drive-in movies pose similar risks to drive-in churches, which are allowed. Bengies tweeted that they would not reopen this weekend even if allowed.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, a Democrat, also said he was contemplating the next steps for his county.
“We must be thoughtful with our approach, and put reasonable policies in place that protect residents and businesses alike as we continue to move toward reopening,” Pittman said on Twitter.
In Harford County, meanwhile, Republican County Executive Barry Glassman embraced Hogan’s announcement. He said the county would move “safely and quickly” to adopt the changes. On Thursday, he intends to issue an executive order to allow outdoor dining.
In Baltimore’s Little Italy, Sergio Vitale, chef and owner of Aldo’s Ristorante Italiano, urged Young to follow the governor’s plans. He has been pushing to close down the streets to allow for expanded outdoor dining.
“There’s no safe way in Little Italy, while maintaining social distancing, to offer dining on sidewalks alone,” he said. “We need the assistance of the streets, in my opinion.”
Scott Panian, owner of Amicci’s, said he’s unsure whether he’d open for outdoor dining. He has a permit for six outdoor tables, which he’d have to reduce to four to comply with the governor’s distancing rules. He’s also mindful of all of the other precautions he would have to take, saying he didn’t know if he was “mentally ready” to reopen.
“I’m anxious to wake up tomorrow and see what the mayor has to say,” Panian said Wednesday evening. “I’m not gnashing at the bit to get my tables out front with servers.”
If the phased-in reopening continues smoothly, Hogan said, the state could move into what he calls “Stage Two” of the state’s recovery plans: Lifting his executive order closing so-called non-essential businesses.
But further reopening depends on Marylanders’ discipline in continuing to follow public health recommendations, such as wearing masks inside, staying six feet apart from others and remaining at home as much as possible, Hogan said.
“The fight against this virus is by no means over," he said. “We must all continue to remain vigilant, particularly as we begin to come into contact with more people. Lower risk does not mean no risk and safer does not mean completely safe.”
If data trends in a positive direction, the second phase could happen “as soon as next week,” the governor said.
Not everyone was keen on Hogan pushing the state forward on reopenings.
Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Maryland Council 3, the largest union for state employees, said his members still don’t have adequate testing or protective equipment to do their jobs safely in places like state prisons and hospitals.
“With the Governor’s latest public announcement, it would seem the Governor has turned to taking cues from those groups demanding to ‘open Maryland’ versus public health experts,” Moran said in a statement.
Earlier in the day, Democrats took to social media to warn against an expanded reopening of the state.
“Rumors say today Larry Hogan is announcing the state is going to phase 2 of reopening, despite the fact that many of the state run testing sites are OUT of testing supplies today,” state Del. Jazz Lewis, a Prince George’s County Democrat, tweeted. “The testing site in my district is turning people away. Something is wrong with this picture.”
As the pandemic spread into Maryland in March, Hogan shut down schools and businesses, put restrictions on gatherings and issued a stay-at-home order. Hogan also ordered residents to wear masks inside businesses and on public transportation. This month, Hogan began a phased-in reopening of the state ― lifting his stay-at-home order and allowing manufacturing, retail, haircuts and worship services to resume with limitations.
Hogan has been citing a nearly month-long decline in hospitalizations due to COVID-19, but hospitalizations ticked upward the past two days.
Nevertheless, protesters have called on the governor to immediately lift all restrictions. A federal lawsuit challenging the orders is pending, but the plaintiffs failed to win a temporary restraining order to block enforcement while the lawsuit plays out.
Meanwhile, public health experts have urged the governor to move more slowly. Dr. Tom Inglesby, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an adviser to the governor, has endorsed some of Hogan’s reopening plans, but not others — advising against reopening indoor religious services and barbershops and hair salons.
A recent poll showed a clear majority of Marylanders support the state’s restrictions on businesses and gatherings meant to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
Hogan said Wednesday Maryland has now reached its goal of conducting 10,000 tests in a day, and has completed more than 300,000 COVID-19 tests statewide. He said the state’s testing positivity rate peaked at 26.91% on April 7. Since then, he said, it has dropped into the mid-teens.
Maryland Policy & Politics Newsletter
Keep up to date with Maryland politics, elections and important decisions made by federal, state and local government officials.
The governor’s announcement came a day after Republican leadership in the House of Delegates sent a letter to Hogan urging him to take additional steps to reopen the state’s economy.
But it also comes as friction is growing between top legislative Democrats and the Hogan administration, after state health officials repeatedly cancelled briefings with legislative leaders.
House of Delegates’ Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, wrote to members Wednesday criticizing the lack of transparency from the Hogan administration.
“It is inappropriate for the lead agency responsible for responding to a pandemic to continue to ignore the General Assembly’s oversight. I will continue to demand their appearance and accountability to this House,” Jones wrote.