Governor Eases Capacity Limits

OCEAN CITY – Gov. Larry Hogan’s lifting of certain COVID-related restrictions this week is welcome news, but many of the measures, including mask requirements and social distancing mandates, remain in place.

There is little doubt Hogan’s announcement regarding the easing of certain COVID-19 restrictions on capacity for restaurants, retail stores and gyms and post-travel measures is welcome news for many businesses that continue to struggle during the pandemic. About this same week last year, Hogan directed businesses to shutter for the most part and implemented stay-at-home orders for most Marylanders.

Over the many months since, despite a few peaks and valleys along the way in key COVID health metrics in Maryland, the state has been on a slow, but steady, pace to recovery. The pace quickened somewhat this week with the governor’s easing of more restrictions, but other key requirements including the wearing of masks and the crucial six-foot social distancing remain in place.

Key among the announcements made by the governor this week effective at 5 p.m. on Friday is the lifting of the 50% capacity limits on indoor and outdoor dining at restaurants and bars, retail businesses, religious facilities, fitness centers, casinos, personal services and recreational establishments, for example. However, masking, physical distancing and distanced service only will remain in place.

Restaurants and bars will be able to allow seating at adjacent booths as long as a physical barrier separates them and prevents individuals from any physical contact. Tables must continue to be spaced six feet apart, but the capacity limit for a household or a group seated together will be increased from six to 10. There will still be no standing or crowding allowed in restaurants and bars and masks will continue to be required until seated, for example.

Capacity limitations for retail establishments and other businesses will be lifted, but the wearing of masks and social distancing must continue to be observed. Large outdoor and indoor venues, such as theaters, concert, convention and wedding venues, for example, may begin operating at 50%, but again, social distancing must be observed and masks will continue to be required.

Hogan said on Tuesday the continued decline in the state’s key COVID health metrics, combined with a slow, but steady vaccination rate in Maryland, have made taking the next step in the recovery plan possible.

“With the pace of vaccinations rapidly rising and our health metrics steadily improving, the lifting of these restrictions is a prudent, positive step in the right direction and an important part of our economic recovery,” he said. “These steps are made possible because of Marylanders wearing masks, washing their hands, keeping their distance and following the public health advice, and because our businesses have carefully followed safe reopening practices and public health guidelines in order to keep their employees and customers safe.”

Hogan cautioned despite the easing of some of the restrictions, the crisis is far from over.

“After over a year with grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, each day brings us closer to seeing a light at the end of this very long tunnel,” he said. “The critical mission to stamp out this pandemic is far from over. However, all of our vaccine programs along with all of our sustained positive improvements have enable us to be able today to take these significant steps to further ease more of the mitigation measures currently in place.”

For those reasons, the governor urged Marylanders to continue to observe health safety practices.

“The sun is shining, spring is coming and the weather is getting warmer,” he said. “I want to make clear this virus is still with us and it continues to remain important to take precautions to stay safe.”

The irony of the timing of Tuesday’s announcements was not lost on the governor. Last year, with state COVID numbers soaring, Hogan, after a weekend of reveling in St. Patrick’s Day celebrations around the state, and the day before the actual holiday, issued the first of many restrictions including the shuttering of businesses and stay-at-home orders.

“Over the last few weeks as we marked one year of grappling with this deadly virus, many of us have been recalling our ‘lasts,’” he said. “The last time we ate inside at a restaurant, the last time we celebrated a big occasion with family and friends, the last time we went to a ballgame, the last time we took a family vacation. In the weeks and months ahead, with continued vigilance, together we can instead begin to mark new firsts. Everything won’t look exactly the same yet and we need to continue to do the things that keep us safe, but there can be no doubt that we are closer to the light at the end of that tunnel and a return to some sense of normalcy in our lives.”

When graduation season near, Hogan was asked by a reporter if schools should make typical plans this spring.

“I think as long as we follow all the health advice and we do masking and distancing, then we should be able to get back to some of those normal things in life,” said Hogan.

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.