OCEAN CITY – Gov. Larry Hogan on Tuesday issued new directives in an attempt to slow the spread of the pandemic, but what it means locally is not entirely clear.
For seven straight days, the number of new coronavirus cases in Maryland increased by over 1,000 for the first time since early in the pandemic. That trend continued on Wednesday with 1,700-plus new cases, 16 more confirmed deaths and 44 new hospitalizations. Perhaps more alarming has been the increase in positive-testing rate, which exceeded the 5% threshold for the first time since June this week. As of Wednesday, the testing positive ratio increased to 5.6%.
As a result, Hogan on Tuesday announced a series of new directives in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Maryland. Among the new directives is a reduction of indoor dining capacity at restaurants and bars in Maryland from 75% to 50%. Throughout the pandemic, the rules changed for restaurants and bars from carryout and delivery only, to outdoor dining only and gradually from 25% to 50% and ultimately 75% before Hogan backtracked to 50% again on Tuesday.
Other directives announced on Tuesday included reverting back to advised limitations of 25 or less for indoor gatherings and stern warnings about out-of-state travel. Government employees returned to mandatory teleworking and general public employees were urged to work from home where possible. The new directives also expand hospital surge capacity across the state and include new guidelines for nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.
“Since last week, most of our key metrics have worsened considerably,” said Hogan. “More people are getting infected with the virus, more people are being hospitalized, more people are going into intensive care, and more Marylanders are dying. The actions we are taking today are absolutely necessary to help us withstand this surge, to save lives, and to keep Maryland on the road to recovery and open for business.”
Locally, members of the hospitality industry in and around the resort on Wednesday were sorting out just what the governor’s new directives mean. Of course, a return to 50% capacity for restaurants and bars is never welcome from a business standpoint, but the timing could be worse. With the calendar hitting mid-November, most local establishments are operating at around 50% anyway on most days with some exceptions, but a backtracking in the state COVID directives could be a bad omen for many, according to Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association Executive Director Susan Jones.
“While we never want to see operations going backwards, the reduction from 75% to 50% will not greatly affect our restaurants,” she said. “Because tables must be socially-distanced and there is only so much square-footage inside, most restaurants are really only at 50% currently. In the beginning of the pandemic, many operators were quick to react with reductions in expenses and operational pivots which helped them survive.”
After many months of tight restrictions, many around the state are suffering from COVID fatigue and have started to relax their adherence to the restrictions in place. Hogan on Tuesday made it known in no uncertain terms the new directives would be strictly enforced. Enforcement locally falls on the county health department, the liquor control board and the police.
Ocean City Police Department Deputy Communications Manager Ashley Miller said on Wednesday the OCPD would start with gaining voluntary compliance before taking sterner enforcement action.
“If our department receives a complaint or observes a facility that is not complying with the orders, we will attempt to make contact with the manager or owner to ensure they are aware of the requirements,” she said. “If the manager or owner is not willing to comply with the orders, our department will document it and then contact the Worcester County Health Department, which will then follow their protocol.”
Perhaps more concerning locally then the reduction in indoor restaurant and bar capacity are the strict limitations on out-of-state travel and gathering sizes. Ocean City relies heavily on conventions and other special events during the offseason and those activities will be curtailed by the new travel restrictions, according to Jones.
“With the announcement of the Maryland Department of Health advising indoor gatherings being limited to 25, I foresee additional cancellations,” she said. “The convention cancellations and the loss of rooms from that segment will have a chilling effect this winter. It’s going to be exceptionally quiet, which is why we are working on a winter wellness promotion.”
Ocean City Communications Manager and Acting Tourism Director Jessica Waters said city officials are working closely with the county health department to ensure the governor’s new directives are in place here and being enforced.
“We are all taking in the governor’s announcement and making adjustments where needed,” she said. “We spoke to [Worcester County Health Officer] Becky Jones and fortunately, Worcester County’s numbers look good at the moment, which is all the more reason to keep doing the right thing and following all health and safety guidelines.”
Waters agreed the gathering size limitations and the travel restrictions are reason for concern.
“Travel restrictions have been a challenge for us,” she said. “We noticed the first wave of travel restrictions in August when Maryland went on and off the New York and New Jersey travel ban list. Fortunately, Maryland has worked closely with Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia, which has brought visitors from those states. In addition, our Maryland visitors have been very loyal travelers and I think we continue to see people from our state staying local and vacationing on Maryland’s coast.”
Waters elaborated on the winter wellness promotion mentioned by Jones.
“The Winter Wellness idea was something created as a spinoff of Hotel Week,” she said. “Several tourism partners were chatting about ways to promote visitors in January and February and we figured that a new year, when people are generally making health a top priority in their lives, combined with the pandemic was a great opportunity to encourage visitors to nourish their mind, body and soul at the beach. Not only is there something very peaceful about staying near the sea during the winter, but we thought involving hotels, restaurants and wellness studios would be a great promotion for visitors that need to recharge their batteries after a long, trying year.”
Even before Hogan’s announcement on Tuesday, Ocean City officials took action to extend Mayor Rick Meehan’s authority to issue emergency declarations. That authority expires every 30 days and needed to be renewed with a formal vote by the council. As a result, the mayor’s emergency declaration, which includes requiring the wearing of masks in public areas when social distancing can’t be observed, was renewed on Tuesday.
“At this point, we need to follow the lead of the state of Maryland, including wearing masks when social distancing is not possible,” he said. “I think it’s pertinent that we do this.”