Council to Vote on Capacity Increases for Gatherings, Religious Facilities, Among Other Changes

The Montgomery County Council, sitting as the Board of Health (BOH), is scheduled to meet virtually Friday at 1:30 p.m. to introduce a regulation and hold a public hearing for new reopening measures. A vote is tentatively scheduled during the meeting following the hearing.

If the council votes to approve the changes, they go into effect Friday at 5 p.m., the same time as Gov. Larry Hogan’s new order. During a press conference Tuesday, Hogan announced that starting Friday at 5 p.m., capacity limits for indoor and outdoor restaurants and foodservice establishments will be lifted. The order also lifts state capacity limits on retail businesses, religious facilities and other establishments, among other changes. While capacity limits are easing, Hogan said the statewide mask mandate and other health orders, like physical distancing, remain in place. Jurisdictions are allowed to implement their own COVID-19 measures, as long as they are not more liberal than the governor’s. Montgomery County’s proposed regulation would “continue restrictions greater than the Governor’s restrictions but loosen the restrictions” currently in effect, according to a staff report.

Changes that would potentially go into effect in the county Friday include increasing the indoor gathering limit to 25 people, raising outdoor gathering limits to 50 people, increasing capacity for religious facilities to 50% and lifting childcare restrictions to align with state requirements, among other changes.

The proposed changes include further reopenings to begin in two weeks, on March 26. If the regulation is approved by council, capacity limits for indoor dining, retail, fitness centers, museums, pools and other facilities will increase on March 26 from 25% to 50% capacity. Arts and entertainment facilities can open to 25% that day, as long as they don’t allow food consumption in the facility.

If approved, the BOH regulation includes the following changes:

1. Remove all local restrictions on childcare facilities and therefore require them to follow State requirements;
2. Change maximum capacity to align with fire or other occupancy permit;
3. Increase outdoor gatherings to a maximum of 50 persons;
4. Increase indoor gatherings to a maximum of 25 persons;
5. Remove the 1 person per 200 square feet of space limits;
6. Remove the alcohol limits on food service facilities;
7. Remove the restriction on buffet service for food service facilities;
8. Remove outdoor structure requirements for food service facilities;
9. Permit food courts in malls to operate in the same manner as other food service facilities;
10. Increase capacity for religious facilities to 50%;
11. Permit arts and entertainment facilities to open at 25% capacity on March 26, 2021 provided they do not sell or permit food for consumption in the facility; and
12. On March 26, 2021, the capacity limits for indoor dining at food service facilities, fitness centers, bowling alleys, escape rooms, museums and art galleries, personal services facilities, pools, retail establishments, and recreation centers increases from 25% to 50%.

If council approves, the changes go into effect Friday at 5 p.m., minus the last two points which go into effect March 26. County Executive Marc Elrich sent the proposed regulation to council on Thursday, according to a staff report. The proposed regulation followed recommendations from County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles and Emergency Management and Homeland Security Director Dr. Earl Stoddard, to “implement a progressive, staged relaxation of restrictions so we can disaggregate the data and assess the impact of the relaxation of the restrictions in other jurisdictions before deciding what is safest for the residents of Montgomery County.”

The BOH regulation quoted Dr. Anthony Fauci, who recorded a video message for county residents that was played during Tuesday’s council session. In his message, Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Chief Medical Adviser to President Joe Biden, said, “Now is the time to keep our foot on the accelerator with regard to adherence to public health measures,” like masking and distancing, while ramping up vaccination efforts. The regulation also quotes Center for Disease Control Director Rochelle Walensky, who said during a March 1 COVID-19 White House Briefing that, “Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know could stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, not when we are so close.”

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