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Balt. County tightens on mask mandate; Hogan follows statewide as cases rise

Catriona Kendall Follow Aug 03, 2020 · 6 mins read
Balt. County tightens on mask mandate; Hogan follows statewide as cases rise

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Baltimore County implemented a new mandate on July 23 requiring everyone ages 2 and over to wear masks in indoor public spaces. Less than a week later, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced an expansion of statewide restrictions to require masks for everyone over the age of 5, to take effect on July 31.

“This is a step that we should and must take here in Baltimore County,” County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said at a news conference on July 21. “We need to be covering our faces.”

Both orders require masks in all public buildings, such as restaurants, gyms, religious facilities, stores and offices. The state mandate, however, also applies to outdoor spaces when social distancing is not possible, while Baltimore County’s order had strongly encouraged but not explicitly required mask-wearing outdoors.

Hogan’s previous order from April, which is superseded by these new restrictions, only required mask-wearing in grocery stores, pharmacies and on public transit.

The state and county mask mandates both define certain exceptions to the mask-wearing rules, including for a medical condition, a mental health condition or a disability that prevents someone from wearing a mask; when seeing someone’s mouth is necessary for communication; or when eating and drinking inside restaurants.

These mask orders follow what Baltimore County Health Director Gregory Branch, who has since tested positive for the coronavirus, called “troubling signs” in recent COVID-19 data. As of Aug. 2, Baltimore County has the third most cases in Maryland at 12,175, according to the state’s COVID-19 Data Dashboard.

With a seven-day average testing positivity rate of 5.75%, Baltimore County is one of three counties to exceed the 5% rate that the World Health Organization advises areas stay under for 14 days before governments begin reopening, The Baltimore Sun reported. Maryland, meanwhile, has a reported statewide rate of 4.6%, though Johns Hopkins University, which calculates the rate differently — using the number of individuals tested rather than the number of tests conducted — gave the state a 6.07% rate on Aug. 2.

Maryland, with increasing hospitalization numbers and almost as many new cases in the month of July as it saw in April, has more than 90,000 confirmed cases and 3,381 confirmed deaths, according to The Baltimore Sun.

On July 21, the governor called the statistics regarding infections in young people in particular “concerning and alarming,” as those in their 20s and 30s contract the coronavirus at increasingly higher rates than other age groups, according to an analysis by The Baltimore Sun. In recent days, young adults have accounted for more than half of new COVID-19 cases in Maryland.

“If we want to keep businesses open, if we want to get our kids back in the classroom this fall, if we want to begin to feel anything like normal again, we have to stop the spread of this virus within our communities,” Olszewski said. “It’s clear that here in Maryland, despite our best efforts to date, we are still not doing enough.”

As statistics worsen across the country, 30 states have imposed mask mandates in some form, given that covering your face with a mask significantly reduces the transmissibility of the coronavirus, according to Christopher Sulmonte Jr., project administrator for the Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit. Because infected individuals even with mild or no symptoms can spread the virus by talking, coughing or sneezing, masks provide a barrier to stop those particulates from infecting anyone else.

To ensure the mask’s efficacy, it must cover your entire face from your nose all the way to your chin, Sulmonte said. Masks that do not cover your nose, for example, remove the barrier to your respiratory system and thus do not prevent the virus from spreading. You also should not touch your mask or face with unclean hands, according to Sulmonte.

“Generally speaking, in terms of carbon dioxide toxicity, I can’t even put into context how unlikely that is to happen, mostly due to how the mask works, how relatively loose the mask is compared to, say, an N95 mask like we use in the health care system, and how long they’re going to be wearing a mask,” Sulmonte said.

For those who feel like they cannot breathe with a mask on, Sulmonte recommends, particularly in hot weather, wearing masks that are light-colored and made of cloth so they do not trap heat and cause discomfort.

Parents worried about getting their children to wear masks can check out Johns Hopkins’ newest program, a free online course designed to teach kids about COVID-19 and its surrounding issues, such as face masks, according to Sulmonte. This course can be accessed at https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/covid-19-basics/understanding-covid-19.

In enforcing the mask order, Baltimore County aims to focus on educating the public and businesses on the need to wear masks but will do whatever is necessary to protect public health, according to county spokesperson Sean Naron.

“Like any other code infraction, violation can result in warnings and repeated violation can result in citations up to $500,” Naron wrote. “Under the County’s order, the Baltimore County Health Department also has the authority to modify operations, or immediately shut down any business or place of assembly that presents an immediate threat to public health.”

Violating the state’s executive order on mask-wearing “knowingly and willfully” constitutes a misdemeanor and could result in up to one year in prison, a $5,000 fine, or both.

The business community in Baltimore County has expressed support for the mask mandate, in the hopes that these public health rules can avert another economic shutdown. Nancy Hafford, executive director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce, which represents 350 local businesses, told The Baltimore Sun she has no problem with the mandate and stressed the importance of businesses getting back on track but following health guidelines to ensure they can stay open.

The Restaurant Association of Maryland conveyed a similar sentiment. “We agree with elected and public health officials that patrons need to wear face coverings when indoors and also follow social distancing guidelines, and by doing so, everyone can help Maryland restaurants remain open,” the organization wrote in a statement to WBAL-TV 11.

“Any action that we take, even universal mask-wearing, is something that we’re doing because we want to keep our businesses open,” Olszewski said.

Baltimore County has received support from its residents as well, according to Naron.

“We’ve primarily received positive feedback from community members supportive of our public health efforts,” Naron wrote. “We’re glad to see Governor Hogan is now following our lead and agreeing that masks are one of the best tools we have to prevent the spread of this virus.”

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Written by Catriona Kendall
Staff Writer