Governor Moves Maryland Into Recovery’s First Phase; Local Restaurants’ Hopes To Offer Outside Dining Not Included

Governor Moves Maryland Into Recovery’s First Phase; Local Restaurants’ Hopes To Offer Outside Dining Not Included
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OCEAN CITY — Providing just a little light at the end of the tunnel, Gov. Larry Hogan this week lifted the stay-at-home order in place for several weeks and moved Maryland into stage one of his three-stage recovery plan.

As expected, Hogan on Wednesday announced effective at 5 p.m. on Friday, the stay-at-home order will be lifted and replaced with a “safer at home” public health advisory. Essentially, that means Marylanders will be allowed to freely move around the state and their communities while continuing to practice social distancing, wearing masks in indoor spaces and other public health advisories.

Lifting the stay-at-home order is just one element of the governor’s “Maryland Strong: Roadmap to Recovery,” which also includes the limited reopening of the state’s economy including retail stores, manufacturing, certain personal services such a beauty salons and barber shops and religious services with strict 50% capacity limitations and other restrictions including social distancing and the wearing of masks, for example.

Alas, restaurants, bars and other food-service operations remain closed for on-premise service and will remain in carryout and delivery mode until stage two of the governor’s recovery plan is reached, or unless Hogan alters the plan in the interim, such as he did with a pre-stage one move last week opening parks and other outdoor areas. There was a push to allow restaurants and bars to provide service to guests in outdoor seating areas with distancing and capacity restrictions on place, but that was not included in the stage one directives announced on Wednesday.

The Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association (OCHMRA) had developed a series of guidelines for a phased reopening with limited outdoor service and was part of the push to have that included in stage one of the recovery plan. Shortly after the governor’s speech on Wednesday, OCHMRA Executive Director Susan Jones sent a blitz email to the association’s members advising them restaurants were not included in stage one.

“I know we were all anxiously awaiting the 5 p.m. conference, and while I’m happy to report that Governor Hogan just lifted the stay-at-home order, we did not hear any mention of ‘outdoor dining,’ which was disappointing. The governor did state a flexible, community-based approach will empower individual jurisdictions to make decisions regarding the timing of stage one re-openings.”

Hogan did say the counties and local jurisdictions will have some autonomy in making decisions regarding their own re-opening plans under stage one. However, it appears that directive would allow local jurisdictions to keep their re-opening plans more restrictive, and not less restrictive.

Hogan pointed out 70% of the state’s confirmed coronavirus infections were concentrated in just four counties in the densely populated center of the state including 50% in the counties surrounding the Washington, D.C. areas. Officials in those counties this week said this week they were not yet comfortable moving to stage one and easing restrictions, so it appears Hogan’s local flexibility directives allow for those counties to make their own decisions about moving to stage one.

In general, there are essentially two main camps in Maryland and around the nation including those who believe the state is moving too quickly with its recovery plan and those who believe it is not moving fast enough. Hogan said on Wednesday the recovery plan was based on the best available data.

“As we begin stage one of our recovery, I want to assure every Marylander who may feel uneasy, and anyone who is concerned that we are moving either too quickly or too slowly, that each and every decision we make is both fact-based and science-based and made only after extensive consultation with our expert Coronavirus Recovery Team,” said Hogan. “We are continually monitoring this crisis, we remain focused on the clusters, outbreaks, and hotspots, and I can assure you that we remain ready to quickly and decisively respond to any changes in the facts on the ground, and that we will continue to attack this virus with every single tool at our disposal.”

The state’s recovery plan is based on two parallel courses. One is reaching the objectives in four basic building blocks including hospital surge capacity, increased testing capacity, the acquisition of sufficient personal protective equipment and a significant improvement in the state’s contact tracing ability. Hogan said on Wednesday the state has continued to check off those boxes.

The other key component in the recovery plan is the stabilization of certain key indicators including the number of hospitalizations, the number of intensive care unit (ICU) admissions and the number of reported deaths in Maryland. Hogan said when those key indicators plateaued and trended in the right direction for at least 14 days, the state could move to stage one of the recovery plan, which is what happened this week.

When the governor announced the recovery plan three weeks ago, he said stage two would rely those same key indicators trending in the right direction for at least another 14 days. If that happens and there are no major spikes in the numbers during stage one, stage two could presumably launched in about two weeks, or roughly Memorial Day weekend.

“We made it clear if Marylanders continued staying at home and practicing physical distancing, we were hopeful that the numbers would start to plateau,” he said. “Two weeks ago, we moved to no longer playing defense and went on the offensive. Last week, with the four building blocks in place and the numbers consistently plateauing, the team recommended revised guidelines and a move to state one in our recovery plan.”

Hogan said entering stage one and re-opening certain businesses and other activities should not be taken to mean COVID-19 is simply going away and dismiss the safe practices that allowed the state to get even this far.

“Lifting the stay-at-home order is a positive step forward,” he said. “It does not mean we are safe and the crisis is over. Those at risk including the elderly and others who are vulnerable are encouraged to stay at home. Marylanders should continue to wear masks inside retail stores and other indoor areas. As always, outside is better than inside.”

The governor encouraged all Marylanders to continue to stay at home when possible, practice social distancing, wear masks in indoor public areas, sanitation and good hygiene practices and all other measures aimed at continuing to flatten the curve.

“If stage one activities resume without spikes in these numbers, we will be in a position to move to stage two,” he said. “The painful truth is this virus will continue to be with us and outbreaks remain a deadly threat until there is a vaccine.”

Hogan empathized with the state’s business community and the desire to reopen and get back to work, but urged Marylanders to hang in there and stay the course in order to advance the recovery plan.

“I’m a lifelong small business owner and I feel for these business owners and I understand people need to get back to work,” he said. “I’m anxious to get to stage two and it depends on how everybody responds to this first phase. If everybody goes crazy and the numbers spike up, it will slow the process.”

Again, stage one of the recovery plan announced on Wednesday includes reopening many businesses including retail stores, personal services operations and religious services, each with 50% capacity restrictions and other social-distancing directives in place. However, again stage one does not include opening restaurants, bars and other food service establishments other than the current allowance for carryout and delivery.

“This order controls the occupancy and use of restaurants, bars and other similar establishments that sell food or beverages for consumption on-premises in Maryland,” the order reads. “All restaurants and bars shall remain closed to the general public except that, to the extent permitted by applicable law and in accordance with any social distancing recommendations of the Maryland Department of Health, food and beverages may be sold if such food or beverages are promptly taken from the premises on a carryout or drive-through basis or delivered to customers off the premises.”

Under a broad category of “other recreational establishments” that must remain closed fall a number of businesses in Ocean City that might be uncertain of what the governor’s new directives mean for them. The list includes bingo halls, bowling alleys, pool halls, amusement parks, miniature golf and social and fraternal clubs such as the American Legion, VFW and Elks Clubs, for example.

This week’s announcement also encouraged businesses who could open on a limited capacity to sign the “Maryland Strong: Back To Business Pledge,” which outlines safety and health promises the individual business is committed to and signed by the owner.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.