Amidst the rapid spike in positive COVID-19 cases, Baltimore County is bringing back some restrictions to again attempt to curb the spread of the virus.
Gov. Larry Hogan gave another press conference on Nov. 17, issuing yet another round of restrictions to slow the quick spread of COVID-19, a rapid spike in cases that has alarmed state and local officials. With the rise in cases, he and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski, Jr. have taken actions to further slow that transmission.
“Over the past eight months, what feels like a lifetime for many of us, we have collectively faced and continue to face what may be the most challenging period in our lives,” Olszewski said during a press conference last Friday.
Olszewski began his press conference by saying that the County has taken significant steps to protect county residents: a robust testing system has been implemented, businesses are taking proactive steps to protect consumers, Baltimore County Public Schools has created a virtual learning model for students, etc.
Despite these adjustments, Olszewski said, Baltimore County has seen a significant increase in COVID-19 cases and the County’s positivity rate. Olszewski reiterated what he called a tough challenge, saying that a “long, dark winter” lies ahead.
“The positivity rate for Baltimore County, which has skyrocketed 129 percent since Oct. 3, is now at 6.4 percent,” Olszewski said. “The case rate per 100,000 residents has increased more than 150 percent since late October and now stands at 27.6 per 100,000. Hospitalizations are at a staggering 120 percent increase since Oct. 23 and are now at their highest level in five months.
“To a significant degree, much of the surge we are seeing can be attributed to a double whammy – the colder weather pushing us into more poorly-ventilated spaces where transmission thrives, and residents allowing a false sense of safety to take over a casual gatherings like dinner parties, sleepovers and holiday get-togethers.”
Starting Nov. 15, the County underwent a small series of new restrictions to again “flatten the curve” and reduce the recent spike in positive cases. All social gatherings not associated with operating or patronizing a business establishment or otherwise subject to existing state orders will be limited to 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors. Bars and restaurants were required to close at midnight. Youth recreational activities are prohibited until further notice.
“This virus has not grown weary, but it thrives when we are weary,” Olszewski said. “It thrives when we let our guard down. Other parts of the country have let their guard down and they are now facing what is being described as a catastrophic lack of hospital beds.”
“The truth is, we will never return to normal if we don’t put in the hard work to slow the spread of this virus. If we ignore the warning signs today, it will take even longer and be even more painful to get back to normal. It’s critical that we keep acting for the good of each other.”
The order for bars and restaurants to close at midnight will be nullified. Hogan announced on Nov. 17 that bars and restaurants are ordered to close at 10 p.m. This order takes effect on Friday, Nov. 20 at 5 p.m.
“We are in a war right now, and the virus is winning,” Hogan said. “Now more than ever, I am pleading with the people of our state to stand together a while longer to help us battle this surging virus. Your family and friends are counting on you, your neighbors are counting on you, and your fellow Marylanders are counting on you to stay ‘Maryland Strong.’”
Along with that, more restrictions will go into effect on Friday at 5 p.m. Capacity at religious facilities and retail establishments will be reduced to 50 percent. This includes bingo halls, bowling alleys, pool halls, roller and ice skating rinks, fitness centers, and social and fraternal clubs.
Fans are no longer permitted to attend racetracks or athletic stadiums, which includes professional and collegiate sports. State health officials have issued an emergency order to prohibit all hospital visitation until further notice. Also, health officials have issued guidance warning hospitals and other medical facilities to avoid any elective procedure admissions that are not urgent or life-saving—especially if they are likely to require prolonged artificial ventilation, ICU admissions, or may have a high probability of requiring post-hospital care in a skilled nursing facility.
“We’re now seeing widespread community transmissions, not just in our cities, but in our rural counties that had not experienced the spread earlier this year,” Hogan said last Tuesday.
Hogan said last week that one of the things leading to the spike in cases is “COVID fatigue,” a form of fatigue that experts say is causing people to become careless, usually because they are tired of being careful, afraid, or cooped up indoors. Fighting this fatigue will be a challenge requiring everyone to do their part, Hogan said.
Maryland and Baltimore County have both taken more proactive steps to continue to assist residents during the pandemic. Last Thursday, Hogan announced $70 million that will go toward the health and safety of residents. Of that, $20 million will be used to add to the state’s stockpile of personal protective equipment (PPE). Another $15 million will be used to add more staffing to the Department of Unemployment Insurance. The state has administered nearly $8 million to more than 640,000 Marylanders, Hogan’s office said last week in a press release.
Another $10 million will be used as assistance for renters seeking relief, another $10 million to accelerate the state’s distribution of a vaccine, and $10 million more to support Maryland food banks.
Olszewski announced more efforts from Baltimore County to assist County residents during his press conference last Friday. Earlier last week, Olszewski committed $11.5 million to county public schools to assist in their preparations for reopening. Even more money has been committed, including funding to assist small businesses with expenses, to reimburse improvements to fight the spread of the virus, assistance for chambers of commerce and business associations and direct funding for professional artists, musicians and performers.
The Baltimore County Public Schools plan to gradually reopen schools to in-person instruction consisted of four phases.
Phase I, which would have reopened the county’s four Public Separate Day Schools — including Battle Monument School in Dundalk — on November 16, has been postponed due to health metrics related to the COVID-19 pandemic and opposition from teachers.
Phase II, which would have seen all students in Preschool through second grade return using a hybrid schedule of in-person instruction and remote learning, was scheduled to start on November 30.
It has also now been delayed.
“Our county health metrics indicate a return by November 30 is not recommended,” Dr. Racquel Jones told the county Board of Education during its Nov. 10 meeting.
Dr. Jones, a member of the team developing the county’s reopening plan, said the county “is poised to implement our plan in a manner that will have students in Phase II re-enter schools on December 14.
“This will allow us time to monitor the metrics as well as launch the operational implementation steps in a manner that will allow staff, principals, transportation and our parents to plan accordingly.
“Of course, any return date for our staff and students is dependent on the health metrics at the time.”
Kathleen Causey, the Board of Education chairperson, had earlier cautioned: “We want to develop the best plan for reopening schools. But reopening of schools will only occur when the health metrics indicate it is safe.”
Those health metrics are a testing positivity rate of five percent or less and a new case rate of 15 (or less) per 100,000 people.
Phase III of the school reopening plan would have seen students in outside general education and select CTE students in grades 3 through 12 return, while Phase 4 will bring back all students in third through 12th grade.
Phase II began on November 11 with the plan released to all stakeholders, followed by a questionnaire asking parents to select one of two options: return to school in a hybrid schedule, or remain with full-time virtual instruction.
Students would be divided into three cohorts: Cohort A would have in-school instruction on Monday and Tuesday and virtual learning Wednesday through Friday; Cohort B would virtual instruction Monday through Wednesday and in-school instruction Thursday and Friday; and Cohort C would do remote learning all week.
The deadline for answering the questionnaire was Monday.
Staff were to return to school on Thursday, cohort development was to be finished on Friday, and school schedules and bus routes on Monday and Tuesday before students returned on the 30th.
As mentioned, students are now tentatively set to return on Dec. 14.
Causey moved that, when metrics became positive for in-person instruction and all other work has been done, all four phases should start at the same time.
The motion failed, 10-2.
A motion directing School Superintendent Dr. Darryl Williams and his staff to bring a detailed plan to the Board for a hybrid second semester by the second Board meeting in December was approved 8-3 with one abstention.
The decision to stop or delay any reopening plan will take place only after two straight weeks of concerning health metrics.
Phase I, the reopening of the Public Separate Day Schools, remains on hold. The will reopen two weeks after the safe health metrics are met and maintained.
SPARROWS POINT —Governor Larry Hogan, County Executive Johnny Olszewski, and managers of TradePoint Atlantic adorned their typical business attire with hard hats and shovels to commemorate the groundbreaking of McCormick’s Sparrows Point distribution center last Wednesday.
When all is said and done, this 300 million dollar center will be 1.8 million square feet, the largest McCormick center in the world, and will employ 200 people—creating jobs for the local economy during one of the most challenging economic times in our nation’s history.
“I said I just couldn’t imagine Old Bay being made in Pennsylvania or anywhere else so we had to keep them here and that was five years ago,” Hogan said.
“From its early days when thousands here built the steel that built our country’s bridges and skyscrapers, this important site has played a tremendous role in the history of our state and our economy and we are so proud to see it once again become a shining example of industry and economic development.”
The thousands who built steel Hogan was referring to were of course all the workers at the Bethlehem Steel Plant, a plant that for decades provided jobs, supported the local economy, and put Baltimore County on the map as an industrial powerhouse.
Once the plant closed, it seemed like the county lost its luster and economic vitality. But, however , it did not lose its resiliency. Tradepoint Atlantic stepped in and turned what was once the iconic steel mill into an industrial park that is home to businesses like Under Armour, Amazon, Perdu, and now McCormick.
“This site produced strong pay and benefits that supported families as they pursued their version of the American dream,” Olszewski said.
“As that mill shut its door we all knew there would be a void that would be hard to fill. But, Tradepoint Atlantic continues to bring new life to Sparrows Point and despite the economic toll of COVID-19, with our proud partnership, they continue to grow and have added over 8,000 jobs to our economy.”
Kerry Doyle, Co-Managing Director at Tradepoint said the journey from where Tradepoint started to where it is now has not been easy.
“I recall two thoughts going through my head at that time. One was, ‘what the heck did we get ourselves into’ and the other was that we have a lot of hard work ahead of us.”
Six years later, with an extensive list of businesses that have now set up shop at Tradepoint, and with the McCormick plant scheduled to officially open in 2022, Doyle said the future of the industrial park, Baltimore County and the entire state of Maryland is looking bright.
“Standing here 6 years later, a few things come to mind. We still have a lot of hard work ahead of us, but as a result of the partnerships that have been forged, we have never been in a better position to continue that hard work.”