As coronavirus cases rise, Montgomery County mandates masks in public, lowers cap on gatherings

“We are entering a phase of covid-19 that is very worrisome, and we need every resident to understand what that means,” said Montgomery County health officer Travis Gayles. “The case counts are continuing to rise at an alarming rate, and we need to take more drastic steps to reduce transmission.”

D.C. and Prince George’s County have a 10-person cap on gatherings. In Virginia, 25 people are allowed in gatherings indoors or outdoors.

Ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) is also calling on Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to bring the state back to Phase 1 of its reopening.

“[The covid-19 spread] is only going to get worse and worse,” he said Monday evening. “And the things we loosened up contributed to this.”

New daily infections in the county have hit record levels in recent days, climbing to a seven-day average this week of 312 new daily infections.

Elrich said he does not intend to bring Montgomery back into Phase 1 unilaterally because of the large number of residents who regularly travel out of the county. He said he hopes Hogan will introduce more restrictions soon, but added, “I don’t believe that I can exert any meaningful pressure on him.”

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Elrich said the county will focus on ramping up enforcement of existing regulations.

County officials broke up an outdoor party of more than 100 people this past weekend, Elrich said. Officials were alerted to the event, in the northern part of the county, when neighbors complained. Elrich said he doesn’t know whether the party’s hosts were fined.

“Look, we’ve told people, if we see things, we’re going to shut them down,” Elrich said. “We’re going to be out there.”

The new D.C. restrictions that take effect Wednesday prohibit indoor gatherings of more than 10 people and outdoor groups of more than 25 people. It also requires restaurants to close at midnight and to stop serving alcohol after 10 p.m. Capacity for indoor dining will drop from 50 percent to 25 percent beginning Dec. 14.

John D. Voss, vice chairman for quality and safety at the University of Virginia Health System, said the Washington region is seeing “an exponential increase” in new coronavirus cases. He said the area has avoided caseload rates seen in other parts of the country, but battling the virus will depend on people’s behaviors through the Thanksgiving holiday.

“We’re not as bad as the Midwest,” Voss said, “but it could be we’re just behind them.”

He said many people are failing to follow the advice of public health officials, adding that the rate of infections won’t decline unless people alter their behavior.

He laid out a grim timetable: Holiday travel this week without appropriate precautions could lead to a rise in cases in seven to 10 days, with virus-related hospitalizations jumping in about two weeks. An increase in deaths from covid-19 could hit in four to six weeks, around late December.

Voss reminded the public that “it’s not too late to not travel” for Thanksgiving. He said travelers who think they are being “safe” by getting a test aren’t being as safe as they think, since it can take three to five days for symptoms to show.

People who decide to visit those outside their immediate household should wear a mask, stay six feet apart and eat outside, he said.

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