As doors reopen, officials voice apprehension
As swaths of the greater Washington region prepared to reopen Friday, with business owners scrambling for cleaning supplies and protective equipment, officials in Maryland's most populous jurisdictions questioned Gov. Larry Hogan's decision to ease his "stay-at-home" order.
Their worries about adequate supplies of tests and safety equipment, as well as the continued wave of coronavirus infections, were also the focus of a letter sent to Hogan by Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore City, and House Speaker Adrienne Jones, D-Baltimore.
"Without a robust testing, tracing, and isolation system in place, there is little doubt that any easing of restrictions will lead to additional COVID-19 cases," the letter reads. "The ensuing spike will only serve to prolong the human and economic devastation being felt by Maryland families, small businesses, and our state and local governments."
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, a Democrat, the top official in a county where more than 400 people - most of them residents of long-term care facilities - have died of covid-19, expressed some of the strongest criticism.
"Personally," he said of Hogan, "I think he went farther than he should have right now."
Across the region, there were 93 new coronavirus deaths and 2,310 new infections reported on Thursday. Elrich noted that Maryland accounted for nearly 1,100 of those new infections, up from 751 the day before.
While both Maryland and Virginia are easing restrictions on nonessential businesses and relaxing other shutdown measures, the largest jurisdictions - including the suburbs that surround Washington - are opting not to do so.
For jurisdictions that do participate, the changes take effect at midnight Thursday in Virginia and at 5 p.m. Friday in Maryland. Virginia restaurants can resume sit-down outdoor dining, and exercise studios may offer outdoor classes, while churches in both states can reopen their doors to a limited number of worshipers.
Strict social distance and cleaning measures will be required.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who exempted Northern Virginia from the reopening several days ago, announced Thursday that he would also delay the change for Richmond, at the city's request, and for Accomack County on the Eastern Shore, where there are several poultry processing facilities that have experienced outbreaks.
In Maryland, Baltimore City joined Montgomery and Prince George's counties in opting out of Hogan's reopening. Anne Arundel and Frederick counties modified the governor's plan, allowing curbside retail but prohibiting churches from reopening and stores from allowing customers inside.
Baltimore County also will allow curbside retail but will prohibit churches, hair salons and barber shops from resuming operations. After saying Wednesday night that it would remain shut down, Howard County decided Thursday to allow curbside retail and permit churches to open with 10 or fewer people.
Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan announced he was ending restrictions on short-term rentals. And Charles County said it would ease restrictions starting May 29.
For those businesses scrambling to reopen, there was a sense of nervous excitement, with proprietors establishing a range of safety measures and getting creative about how to space their customers apart.
Lisa Osorio decided to hold classes for up to 10 people in the backyard of her Stafford, Virginia, yoga studio, marking in the grass where yogis can lay their mats six feet apart.
She plans to place her mat about 10 feet from the rest of her class and use a microphone with outdoor speakers to lead. Her first three days of live classes, which begin Monday, weather permitting, are already sold out.
"I felt energized and really hopeful, like, 'Yes we are going to make it,' " she said. "We just had to figure out what to do."
The cautious excitement came as local and federal authorities released economic data showing the dire consequences of the shutdowns triggered by the worldwide pandemic.
More than 103,000 jobless claims were filed last week in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, bring the total number of people who have sought jobless benefits in recent weeks to 885,000.
Maryland officials said the state expects to lose at least $925 million in tax revenue by the end of June. Though that's less than half the worst-case scenario predicted a month ago, the sum will nevertheless force across-the-board cuts over the next several months, officials said.
In Virginia, Northam said April revenue collections fell 26 percent compared to a year ago.
Throughout the day Thursday, concern over reopening too soon poured in from leaders of the region's most populous areas.
In Maryland, Prince George's County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, a Democrat, signed an executive order continuing the stay-at-home restrictions through June 1. She said the county has not seen the declines in hospitalizations, deaths and new cases - or obtained the quantity of tests and protective equipment - that are necessary to safely reopen.
The testing positivity rate in Prince George's is 33 percent, she said, compared to the statewide average of 20 percent.
Baltimore Mayor Bernard Young, a Democrat, also cited a lack of adequate supplies of tests as a major concern.
The decision not to allow shops to reopen to customers in Howard County came as a relief to Kelli Myers, who owns A Journey From Junk, a boutique in Ellicott City.
"I took a breath," she said. "It seemed like a bad idea to reopen so soon."
When the pandemic forced her shop to close in March, Myers, like many of her neighbors, was still steeped in debt from two floods that had ravaged Ellicott City over the past four years. The opportunity to reopen would have given her a much-needed chance to make some money.
But Myers said she wants "more time to turn it around and make sure everyone feels safe in my shop, which is so small."
Across the region, people are still getting sick in high numbers. The District reported 152 new cases Thursday and eight additional deaths. Maryland reported 1,091 new cases and 57 deaths. Virginia reported 1,067 new cases and 28 fatalities.
But the vast majority of the infections are in the region's population centers, and officials in more rural areas are eager to relaunch their economies as soon as possible.
For those opening, it was a scramble - especially for cleaning supplies.
Joan Nubie-Miscall, who owns a small gift shop in Oxford, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, spent Thursday scrambling for cleaning supplies. She searched Google and watched YouTube videos to determine the right amount of alcohol to add to baby wipes to maximize their efficacy, and said she plans to spend lots of time scrubbing down surfaces in the gift shop to make sure her customers, mostly retirees, are safe.
"I looked around yesterday and thought, 'Uh oh, I could blow through everything I have very quickly,' " she said, referencing her limited supply of Clorox wipes.
In Virginia's Henrico County, owners Paolo and Rhonda Randazzo were looking forward to reopening the large dining patio at Portico Restaurant & Bar, set behind a 1940s general store on a rural lane outside Richmond. With no indoor dining, the restaurant will be able to serve about 48 people at a time, with tables positioned six feet apart.
Guests will have to wear face masks when they walk through the restaurant building to reach the patio, or if they go inside to use the restroom. Menus will be disposable. A staffer stationed at the restrooms will clean them between each use. To limit traffic at the door, patrons will exit out the back, along a garden path.
"We're locking the door so no one can come into the restaurant until the table is ready," Rhonda Randazzo said. Portico's nine-person staff, outfitted in face masks, will keep as much distance as possible as they serve customers.
Extra precautions will be taken to keep everything clean, with items not bound for the dishwasher taken to a sanitation station. That includes the little trays used to present checks, the pens for signing credit card receipts, and even the sugar-packet holders. The sugar packets themselves will get dumped in a box and kept there for 48 hours, until any chance of contamination has passed, before they are placed on another table.
"It's not hard," Rhonda Randazzo said. "It's just a lot of thought."
In Front Royal, Virginia, PaveMint Smokin' Taphouse will turn its outdoor space into a camp-style restaurant nicknamed "Camp PaveMint 2020" to welcome back customers for their first sit-down meal in many weeks.
Rachel Failmezger, who owns the smokehouse with her husband, has purchased and erected five 100-square-foot tents, which will act as private dining spaces for up to eight customers at a time.
The tents, which are available to reserve for 2 1/2-hour stretches, are already sold out for Friday and Saturday night. Customers won't have to wear masks but will be asked to access the menu via their phones.
"We want to give our community a safe space with some fun and joy that reminds us of when things were a little less complicated," Failmezger said. "This is a way to provide social distancing that doesn't feel quite so isolated."