Maryland to lift most COVID restrictions, including mask requirements, on July 1, as statewide case numbers decline

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Maryland will end most of its coronavirus emergency restrictions on July 1, closing an intense 15-month chapter in the state’s history in which nearly 9,500 people died.

Gov. Larry Hogan announced Tuesday the lifting in just over two weeks of most statewide restrictions and orders related to the pandemic. The state’s mask order — which requires face coverings indoors at schools, day care centers, medical settings and on mass transit — will expire the same day. (A federal order requiring masks on planes, subways, buses and other mass transit remains in effect.) Hogan said businesses can set their own rules on mask wearing.

While most of the state rules and orders will end July 1, a state of emergency, first issued on March 5, 2020, won’t legally expire until Aug. 15, according to the governor’s office. During the 45-day grace period, certain rules and regulations will continue to be relaxed, such as requirements for renewing expired driver’s licenses. A moratorium on evictions will run through Aug. 15, as well.

“While the end of the state of emergency is an important step in our recovery from COVID-19, it does not mean that this virus and the variants no longer pose any threat. If you have been vaccinated, you are safe, but those who are not vaccinated will continue to be at risk,” Hogan said, adding there’s “no excuse” to not get vaccinated. Vaccines are available and they are safe, the governor said.

It was not immediately clear how the ending of the state of emergency at the state level would affect the abilities of local governments or school districts to enact their own restrictions. Baltimore City, for example, has continued to require masks in many more indoor settings than the state currently does. Asked about local governments’ authority, Hogan said he was not sure. A spokesman said later that each county and Baltimore City could issue orders, if allowed under local laws.

Local governments could use the next several weeks to sort out what their next steps will be, said Michael Greenberger, founding director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law in Baltimore.

“They’ve got time to think through whether, even without a state of emergency after Aug. 15, do they want to try to — under their own legal authority — keep those regulations in place?” he said. “I think it is a heavy lift for the counties and cities to do these kinds of extraordinary things without the umbrella of the governor’s state of emergency.”

The Republican governor’s announcement comes as the number of COVID-19 infections, deaths and hospitalizations have declined to a fraction of where they stood at the peak of the pandemic in January. As of Tuesday, the state reported 194 people being treated in hospitals for COVID-19. Maryland’s testing positivity rate was 0.82%.

“We’ve been through so much over the last 15 months. But just look at how far we’ve come together to reach this hopeful point,” Hogan said.

More than half the state’s roughly 6 million residents have been fully vaccinated against the disease, while about 59% of the population has received at least one vaccine dose, according to the health department. The state has dished out more than 6.5 million vaccine doses.

However, the pace of immunizations has dropped off considerably. Roughly a month ago, the state was reporting an average of about 50,000 vaccinations daily; it’s registered about 27,000 shots daily over the last week.

Citing a waning demand, the state has been closing mass vaccination clinics, shifting the immunization campaign to targeted outreach.

Dr. Gregory Schrank, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said Maryland is well-positioned compared to other states in terms of high vaccination rates along with low hospitalizations and case rates.

“The timing is good, particularly going into summer and everyone is outdoors where we know it’s safer,” Schrank said.

He warned, however, that state health officials and the public should remain concerned about coronavirus variants. The new Delta variant, for example, is more easily transmitted between people and is associated with more serious illness.

“The dynamics may change with new variants and it’s something we need to monitor and learn about. If Delta takes hold and is the dominant strain by fall, then we’ll have to get a better understanding of best practices for public spaces and schools,” he said.

Throughout the pandemic, Hogan has used the state of emergency and a companion declaration of a “catastrophic health emergency” to issue directives aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus. In Maryland, emergency declarations can only last for 30 days, so Hogan has repeatedly reissued the order, most recently on Saturday.

Both the general state of emergency and the catastrophic health emergency offer the governor authorities and powers under state law that he does not typically have. For instance, a governor can activate the Maryland Emergency Management Authority to deploy supplies and resources, tap the manpower of the Maryland National Guard, accept and distribute money and resources from the federal government, suspend laws and regulations, order evacuations, impose curfews, and regulate and control supplies.

Under a state of emergency, a governor can also take such steps “necessary in order to protect the public health, welfare, or safety.” Last spring, the governor imposed a stay-at-home order, for example, that was later gradually relaxed and then eliminated.

The actions taken by the governor under the state of emergency have withstood legal challenges. A group of politicians, pastors and business owners unsuccessfully challenged Hogan’s coronavirus restrictions last spring. They filed a federal lawsuit that claimed he overstepped his authority and infringed on the Constitution and federal laws protecting commerce, freedom of assembly, the right to protest and the right to practice their religion. A judge dismissed the case in November.

Hogan’s emergency orders also were the subject of protests, especially last spring and summer, through a “Reopen” movement organized largely on social media.

Baltimore Sun reporters Colin Campbell, Meredith Cohn and Bryn Stole contributed to this article.

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