Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich said Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s decision to largely reopen the state’s economy ignores the science and imperils the work that has positioned Maryland to declare victory over COVID-19 in the coming weeks.
He also suggested that Hogan’s action was motivated in part by national political considerations.
The head of the largest county in the state – a Democrat – also trashed the Republican governor’s new senior health adviser, former Centers of Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield, a Trump appointee who joined Hogan’s team last week.
“It’s a serious mistake,” Elrich said of Hogan’s decision to lift most restrictions on commerce. “They’re going to trigger another spike [in infections] before the vaccines get widely disseminated.”
On Tuesday, Hogan announced he will remove most restrictions on dining, retail activity and social gatherings, effective on Friday.
The move eliminates capacity limits on restaurants, though patrons must be seated and distanced.
Hogan’s order also lifts limits on retail businesses, religious facilities, casinos, fitness centers, hair and nail salons, and indoor recreational establishments – including bingo halls, bowling alleys, pool halls, skating rinks and social clubs.
Large facilities – including Camden Yards and other sports venues, race tracks, conference centers, convention halls, concert sites, wedding and banquet spaces, theaters, and hotel ballrooms – will be allowed to open at 50% capacity.
The state’s broad mask order remains in effect. It applies to transit riders, public indoor spaces, houses of worship, stores, gyms, casinos, salons and other places where people gather.
In an interview, Elrich declared that Hogan – a potential White House hopeful in 2024 – jumped the gun by removing restrictions now. The smarter step would have been to wait a few more weeks, until COVID-19 vaccines are in greater supply, he said.
“I am truly baffled that we get a year into this and all of a sudden we can’t wait any longer,” Elrich said. “Why? Because other Republican governors have gone ahead of you and you don’t want to seem like you’re overly-protective of the people?”
“It strikes me as way, way premature and mostly wrong,” he added.
Montgomery County officials only recently allowed restaurants to open at 25% capacity. Elrich said opening the door to indoor dining is particularly unwise policy.
“It’s flat-out not safe. It’s the one place where masks come off,” he said. “Under no scenario are restaurants a good idea.”
Most local leaders were unaware that Hogan intended to lift restrictions until he made his announcement at a State House news conference on Tuesday afternoon.
His order contained a clause removing, as of Friday, the power of local jurisdictions to piggyback on the state’s emergency order authority. Hogan’s pronouncement sent local officials – and their attorneys – scrambling to figure out how to respond.
Elrich said that if Montgomery’s current restrictions on commerce and social gathering were predicated on the state’s current order, “that’s a problem.”
The remedy may be to have the county health officer issue a new order every 72 hours, subject to the County Council’s approval.
The executive said he’s concerned that the “Brazilian” variant of COVID-19 may be “more infectious, it seems to infect people who previously had COVID, and it may be more deadly.” Until public health experts know more about it, it’s safer to re-open the economy more slowly, he suggested.
Hogan was flanked on Tuesday by Redfield, his new health adviser, but not his acting Health secretary, Dennis R. Schrader. Schrader’s nomination to become permanent Health secretary is pending in the state Senate, and Democratic leaders have been reluctant to move it due to confusion over the state’s vaccine rollout.
Elrich called Redfield, who ran the CDC from 2018 to 2020, “the last person I would have brought in to manage a crisis, given how he did under [President] Trump.”
“This whole mess we’re in today, he’s certainly part of the architect of that.”