Despite Elrich Request, Gayles Says Case Count Still Too High for Further Reopening

Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles. Via Montgomery County, MD Flickr.

On Friday, Montgomery County announced that restaurants, breweries and wineries can offer live performances along with dining/drinking. 

No dancing or congregating around performers is allowed, and people must wear masks (unless eating or drinking) and stay seated while eating. The announcement came shortly after most Maryland counties began Phase 3 of the state’s recovery. Phase 3 includes the reopening of indoor theaters and outdoor performance venues with health and capacity protocols, and capacity increases for retail and religious buildings. Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties and Baltimore City are also still in Phase 2 along with Montgomery County.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich actually asked Gov. Larry Hogan in an Aug. 13 letter to allow live performances. In the letter Elrich says he believed there was no good reason to totally prohibit live performances instead of allowing them with safety measures in place. Other facilities like religious buildings have been allowed to reopen with restrictions. In Montgomery County, the limit on gatherings is 50 people except for outdoor religious services, for which the limit is 150 people. 

Elrich asked Hogan to lift the live performance restriction and limit audiences to less than 50 people, which Hogan granted with his Phase 3 announcement Sept. 1. However, Montgomery County did not take advantage of Elrich’s request and did not allow indoor and outdoor theater venues to reopen. Only performances at restaurants, breweries and wineries are allowed. 

During a media call Friday, County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles explained the decision. He said current daily COVID-19 case counts are too high to reopen any further. In June the average daily case count dipped down into the 60s, but cases are rising. As of Monday, the 3-day average daily count was 106. 

Gayles said even a moderate level of transmission would be 30-35 new cases per day, and the county is far from a low level of transmission. 

“Our ultimate goal is to get to a point where we are seeing, at minimum, a moderate level of transmission, which by CDC definition would put us somewhere in the area of 30-35 cases a day,” Gayles said. “And ultimately we want to drive it even lower than that to get to demonstrated low transmission, which by CDC definition would be cases in the single digits on a daily basis.”

Gayles said if that happens and is sustained, then the county can have deeper conversations about further reopening. He said he refuses to believe 70-80 cases per day is the best Montgomery County can do. Elrich shares the same sentiment and said during a virtual media briefing Sept. 2 that the county is not ready for Phase 3, however Phase 2 will continue to be modified.

Recently, the county reported the following numbers of daily new COVID-19 cases:

Thursday, 9/3: 91
Friday, 9/4: 118
Saturday, 9/5: 101
Sunday, 9/6: 78
Monday, 9/7: 140

Gayles also helped clarify the county’s announcement. He said live performances at food/drink venues are only allowed if they are incidental to the primary purpose of the establishment, which is to sell food and/or drinks. He said dancing is not allowed because it’s a material change to that primary purpose. 

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