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County Health Leaders: Variable COVID-19 Restrictions Leaves Residents Confused

Emily Sullivan/WYPR

Stores in Baltimore City are closed. In Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, retail is open for curbside pickup and delivery. In Harford and Carroll counties, customers can actually go inside stores.

When Gov. Larry Hogan replaced his stay-at-home order with a “Safer at Home” advisory and lifted some other statewide restrictions last week, he said what’s considered safe will necessarily vary county by county. He pointed to Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, which together account for more than half of the state’s COVID-19 cases. He left it up to local officials to decide how to move forward into the first phase of his recovery plan. 


The result is a patchwork of rules that change as you cross county lines. Some county health officers told state lawmakers on Wednesday that the variation forces them into a defensive position as they explain their choices to confused residents. 

Even the metrics used to decide if it is safe to lift restrictions vary county by county. Anne Arundel County wants to have the capacity to test 2% of its population each week. In Montgomery County, the goal is 5% of the population each month. 


“We would have preferred there to be more of a state-led effort and recognizing the challenges that different jurisdictions have, as opposed to leaving it to us to figure out those metrics,” Montgomery County Health Officer Travis Gayles told the state legislature’s Joint Covid-19 Response Legislative Workgroup via Zoom on Wednesday. “It's created a dynamic where we have had to be put on the defensive, quite frankly, as local health departments, in terms of justifying why we aren't opening up and why our metrics don't match up.”


Gayles said Montgomery County may not be able to completely lift all of the restrictions allowed in the first phase of Hogan’s recovery plan. During a call with reporters later on Wednesday, he said they may be able to allow curbside pickup for retail in a week or two.


“We continue to work and talk with our partners in other jurisdictions to think about how we can do this and, you know, move together, because as we've emphasized before, the boundaries across the jurisdictions, people come and go pretty easily,” he said. 


The variable rules affect not only local health departments, but also the business community and social services, Anne Arundel County Health Officer Nilesh Kalyanaraman told state legislators during their Zoom meeting. 


“That sort of coordination gets really difficult across counties when it's not done at the state level,” Kalyanaraman said.


Howard County Health Officer Maura Rossman said she understands the need for variation. The pandemic looks different in rural Garrett County than it does in suburban central Maryland. 


The challenge, she said, is communicating to the public what’s safe and what’s not.


“I'll admit, sometimes I'm confused, and I certainly think that the public is confused that, as we talk about reopening, suddenly we can all go out without masks, social distancing is not so important, and suddenly ‘Safer … at Home’ becomes no longer needed,” she said. 

She said officials need to make sure the public knows that the virus isn’t going away anytime soon, and that some of the restrictions may need to get tighter again if the infection rates get worse. 

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom.
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