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Montgomery County bans indoor dining, limits capacity in stores

The Council unanimously voted to approve tighter COVID restrictions proposed by County Executive Marc Elrich as the county hit 40,000 positive cases.

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Md. — The Montgomery County Council unanimously voted Tuesday to approve tighter COVID-19 restrictions proposed by County Executive Marc Elrich, which take effect Tuesday at 5 p.m. 

The new restrictions include a ban on indoor dining, reducing the maximum capacity of retail businesses and restricting indoor and outdoor gathering sizes, including non-professional sporting events.

Outdoor dining can continue between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Rectangular dining tents must leave at least one side of the tent open at all times; non-rectangular tents (i.e. yurts, igloos or dining bubbles) require a letter of approval to operate and are capped at 1 table per 50 square feet, with six feet of space between each table. 

Councilmembers, several of whom expressed hesitation over the new order but ultimately all voted to pass it, hope the ban will help lower transmission rates, keep people out of the hospital, and get kids back to school by February.  

"Montgomery County has determined that it is necessary and reasonable to continue to impose limitations on business and personal activities that are more restrictive than those permitted by State Executive Order 20-11-17-01 in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19," the county's executive order reads. 

Under the new executive order: 

  • Indoor dining is prohibited 
  • Outdoor gatherings are capped at 25 people
  • Indoor gatherings are restricted to 10 people (including non-professional sports)
  • Maximum capacity for retail establishments reduced to one person per 200 square feet of retail space—not to exceed a maximum of 150 people.
  • Fitness centers can operate at 25% capacity
  • Houses of worship can operate indoors at 25% capacity
  • Letter of approval is needed for outdoor religious services of more than 25 people (previously capped at 150)

Montgomery County restaurants are also required to keep records of diners' names and contact information for contact tracing purposes and must post signage enforcing that masks are required at all times except when eating or drinking. 

“Until [vaccines] are widespread, the only control we have over the spread of this virus is our own behavior,” Elrich said. “We saw the effectiveness of the steps we took at the beginning of this pandemic, and I believe we need to revisit some of those steps.”

Rafael Pires was enjoying his last indoor lunch at Burger Fi in downtown Silver Spring when the restrictions took effect. 

“We need to do whatever we need to do, it’s an emergency,” Pires said. 

General Manager Keila Mateo said delivery services saved the burger joint, even with limited indoor dining options.  Now, she said with the new restrictions, they’ll return to take-out only. 

“We understand because of COVID we try to 100% try to adapt to the changes,” said Mateo, “there’s just so much negativity I’d rather teach my employees and myself just stay positive.”

But not everyone had such a positive outlook. The Council heard from a long list of residents who opposed the tougher restrictions, including John Bowers who asked to see the specific data that pointed to indoor dining as the cause of community transmission. 

“You are putting people out of work just two weeks before Christmas,” he said. 

“No one is trying to put people out of business,” Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles responded. "But we do have to adhere to policy and practices to keep our representatives safe.”

Gayles said the county is relying on data from Johns Hopkins that says stricter measures on indoor dining will decrease hospitalizations by 20 to 30 percent. According to the health officer, ICU and acute care beds are filling up fast throughout the state. Gayles said three out of six hospitals in Maryland have no vacancies in their Intensive Care Units.   

“We’re going to get through this with all of us working together," Mateo said. "It’s one step closer to get us to normal."

There was no date set as to when indoor dining can resume in Montgomery County.

The new restrictions were handed down on the day that the total number of coronavirus cases broke the 40,000 mark in Montgomery County. Maryland also Maryland passed an unwelcome milestone on Tuesday as the state reported its 5,000th death from the coronavirus. The state is now averaging 40 deaths from the virus a day – up nearly 50% from where it was two weeks ago.

RELATED: COVID Blog: The DMV is on a rollercoaster, and it's headed upward

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