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Baltimore To Loosen Restrictions To Half Capacity For Most Businesses

Baltimore City Mayor Brandon Scott speaks at a February news conference.
Courtesy of the Office of the Mayor
Baltimore City Mayor Brandon Scott speaks at a news conference. On Wednesday, he announced eased coronavirus restrictions.

Baltimore City Mayor Brandon Scott announced eased coronavirus pandemic restrictions Wednesday. They are to go into effect next week.

The new set of restrictions are stricter than statewide guidelines announced by Gov. Larry Hogan last week.

On March 26, the city will allow indoor dining to operate at 50% capacity and outdoor dining at 75% capacity. Religious facilities, retail businesses, museums, libraries, spas, barber shops, salons, indoor and outdoor recreation, gyms and casinos may operate at 50% capacity.

Fitness classes have a cap of 10 people or 25% room capacity, whichever is greater. Social distancing and masks are required.

Indoor theaters are limited to 50% occupancy or 100 people, whichever is less. Outdoor entertainment venues are limited to 75% occupancy or 250 people, whichever is less.

Hookah and cigar lounges may operate at 50% capacity, but no smoking is allowed on site.

“We will continue to analyze the data and lean on the expert direction of our healthcare partners,” Scott said.

The relaxed restrictions fall after St. Patrick’s Day, which has had Scott’s team on high alert. City COVID-19 rates saw spikes after other holidays, such as Christmas and New Year’s Day.

As of Wednesday,data from the city health department shows, Baltimore’s testing positivity rate of 2.3% was below the state average. Baltimore averaged 101.7 new cases of COVID-19 daily over the last week, a decrease of 11% from four weeks earlier. The city’s 11 hospitals have intensive care and acute care units operating at 85% and 88% capacity, respectively.

Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said the city’s COVID-19 data and vaccination rates have hit several important milestones.

“Review of case data indicate that our metrics have dropped dramatically since the peak of how they surged during the winter,” she said. “We're also starting to see increased numbers of residents obtain their vaccination.”

Dzirasa said that 17.2% of city residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, while a third of Baltimoreans 60 and older have received at least one dose.

Vaccines are a crucial tool in reopening more widely, she said, adding that further relaxed restrictions will require higher vaccination rates among Baltimoreans.

Both she and Scott said that city residents must do their part to avoid crowds, wear masks and practice social distancing in order to reach the finish line of the pandemic.

Hogan’s executive order, announced last week, eliminated capacity limits at restaurants and allowed large indoor and outdoor venues to operate at 50% capacity. It also renewed the state’s mask mandate.

Scott criticized the Republican’s relaxations shortly after they were announced, saying that statewide COVID-19 data did not warrant his decision.

Local leaders have the authority to set tighter restrictions than those set by Hogan, who encouraged them to adopt his loosened rules. Unlike officials in Baltimore’s neighboring counties, Scott declined and last week issued an executive order of his own to maintain the city’s current guidelines, which restrict most indoor places of business to 25% capacity. They will remain in place until Friday of next week.

Since entering office late last year, Scott has re-evaluated restrictions every four weeks. Dzirasa said Scott’s pandemic advisory team, which consists of health experts from the city and local universities, will review restrictions on a bi-weekly basis instead.

“This will allow us to rapidly adjust as needed, based on the data,” she said.

After the news conference, Scott received a dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine administered by Dzirasa at Baltimore City Community College’s Liberty Heights Campus. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is administered in a single dose, unlike those produced by Moderna or Pfizer.

“It doesn't matter what shot you can get. Just get it,” he said. “The important thing is that you get vaccinated so that we can protect ourselves from this deadly, deadly disease. We've lost over 800 people in the city to COVID-19. This will save lives.”

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.