Montgomery County on Tuesday loosened pandemic-related restrictions on religious institutions at the request of faith leaders but will continue to opt out of allowing restaurants to increase indoor dining capacity.
Until this week, houses of worship in the county had to limit attendance to one participant or household group for every 200 square feet of religious ceremony space. Lawmakers on Tuesday approved a proposal from County Executive Marc Elrich (D) to determine the gathering size limit “by dividing the total square footage of the worship space by 50,” with a maximum of 40 percent occupancy.
The county has reopened at a slower pace than the rest of the state and has stayed at the second phase of its recovery plan since June. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced earlier this month a statewide move to Phase 3, which allows houses of worship to increase capacity to 75 percent, but Montgomery officials opted out of his timeline.
Earl Stoddard, Montgomery County’s head of emergency management, said the county guidance approved Tuesday was the result of pitches from faith leaders.
County health officials stood their ground for months, citing the 80 to 100 new coronavirus cases reported daily and an infection rate that suggested a moderate rate of transmission in the suburb. But on Tuesday, officials loosened the restriction.
“Persistence overcomes resistance,” said Rabbi Herzel Kranz, chuckling.
Kranz, 90, belongs to the Orthodox Silver Spring Jewish Center in Kemp Mill and is among a group of religious leaders who have lobbied since the summer for the county to loosen restrictions on religious gatherings.
Kranz said he was feeling down over the Rosh Hashanah holiday — the first of the Jewish high holidays — this past weekend because his efforts had not been successful. “Then all of a sudden, I get a call saying it’s going to happen,” he said.
“It’s not completely what we wanted,” Kranz added. “But it’s enough for now.”
Though restrictions were loosened on houses of worship, county leaders continue to opt out of Hogan’s guidance to increase the capacity for dining indoors.
Hogan announced an easing of restrictions on dining Friday to coincide with a new statewide restaurant week promotion that his administration created — boosting allowable capacity to 75 percent, up from 50 percent. Leaders in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties said at the time they would opt out.
“Based on the data that we have, we are not moving forward,” Montgomery Health Officer Travis Gayles reiterated Tuesday in a briefing with lawmakers.
According to contact tracers, he said, coronavirus outbreaks in the county continue to be associated with indoor dining and large family gatherings. The county’s rolling seven-day average of new cases Tuesday stood at 80 infections — a number that has changed little in recent weeks.
While Hogan is allowing more patrons to dine in, a trade group representing about 2,000 Maryland restaurants complained Tuesday that new state Health Department rules “make it impossible” for restaurants to operate at 75 percent capacity.
Social distancing guidelines — and the state’s unwillingness to permit the use of plastic barriers to separate customers — limit seating capacity to less than 75 percent, said Marshall Weston, president and chief executive of the Restaurant Association of Maryland. He said in a statement that the state’s newly issued guidance “essentially negates” Hogan’s directive and that the state Health Department is undermining it.
Health Department officials said Tuesday that the guidelines were crafted in conjunction with the governor’s order and changes are possible as the state’s health metrics improve.