As COVID-19 Cases Slowly Increase, County Will Develop Benchmarks for Potential Rollbacks

Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles has said more than once that the county has not reached even a moderate rate of COVID-19 transmission. 

In early August he said a moderate rate would be around 20-30 new cases per day and on Sept. 4 he said it would be around 30-35 new cases. Gayles reiterated the 30-35 benchmark at a county council meeting Tuesday. Now as cases are slowly increasing and the 3-day average for new cases is 95 as of Tuesday, he said the county would roll back allowances that are connected to positive cases if necessary.  

“I know it will cause concern and potential controversy if we need to do that, but the recommendations from the health perspective will be to not blink if we need to do [that], particularly if they are activities that we are finding are time and time again associated with an increase in cases,” Gayles said. He said new cases are less severe than before and have not significantly increased hospitalizations, ICU hospitalizations, acute bed usage, or emergency room visits with symptoms. Still, the county is working on criteria to present to residents that shows at which points allowances would have to be rolled back.

“We have to come up with a structure that lays out criteria to say to the general public, if we get to these point[s] we have to go back because we’ve got to drive the numbers down even more,” Gayles said. He said he will make sure the council has an opportunity to give input.

Gayles said daily new cases were dropping in late June and July but increased in late July and August. Now, they’re slowly increasing. Currently the 3-day new case average is 95 and the lowest number of new cases reported this month was on Sept. 8 with 48 cases followed by 78 on Sept. 6 and 13. The lowest number reported for all of August and September so far was 47 cases on Aug. 26. Again, Gayles said a moderate rate of transmission would be 30-35 per day.

He said he felt comfortable saying the increase in our cases is secondary to the Labor Day holiday and the state moving to Phase 3 on Sept. 4.

Gayles emphasized that any roll-backs would be intentional and based on data. The county has previously targeted certain businesses for restrictions due to evidence of non-compliance. In early August, the county mandated that restaurants and bars could not sell alcohol for on-premise consumption after 10 p.m. The new rule came after County Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security Director Dr. Earl Stoddard said in July that restaurants at night are of particular concern when it comes to compliance. He said the problem is greater during the after-dinner period when restaurants operate more like traditional bars. Food service establishments can still sell alcohol for carry-out after 10 p.m.

On Tuesday, Stoddard said the county is working on a plan to allow restaurants to serve alcohol for on-premise consumption until midnight with stipulations, like having staffing for the sole purpose of enforcing COVID-19 rules. Gayles noted that the county continues to see cases tied to family gatherings.

He said he is nervous about most of the state moving to Phase 3 of reopening and thinks a significant increase in new cases is possible. 

“We are nervous because we know that we have not achieved a lower level of community transmission and by increasing the opportunity for activities to be open,” he said. “We’re nervous that could set us up for a potential significant increase to new cases across the state even in the setting of lower hospitalizations or things like that.”

He said health professionals realize that allowing more reopening while the burden of COVID-19 isn’t improving is going to create new cases, “and that’s the reality that we’re living in.” Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties and Baltimore City are also still in Phase 2 along with Montgomery County.

Stoddard said even if “everything” closed down, which has not been discussed, our county might not see the desired plummet in cases because most other counties have moved into Phase 3 of reopening. New cases would go down but residents from Montgomery County may travel to counties with more allowances and vice versa, which could make local efforts less effective and hurt businesses harder. 

“The choice then becomes do we do that and have greater economic impact disproportionately to our businesses and have long-term ramifications there,” Stoddard said. Council President Sidney Katz urged everyone to keep businesses in mind and remember that they are hurting badly. 

“We also need to keep in mind that our businesses and everyone else are hurting and hemorrhaging in so many ways, so we have to figure out a way which is the best path forward,” he said.  

Stoddard is confident that no roll-backs will happen at the state level.

“There is clearly no appetite at the state to close things down again and that’s the challenge that we’re going to face is that we would have to go it alone,” he said. 

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