BETHESDA, Md. (FOX 5 DC) - In a regular Wednesday COVID-19 virtual news conference, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich told reporters the idea to implement a one-hour indoor dining limit came from a restaurant owner who was apparently dealing with people staying in their business for long periods of time. The responses from restaurant owners in the county on Wednesday include more frustration.
"And so the suggestion was to limit things to an hour so there would be turnover. So I think [this] should helpful to restaurants to ensure that their seats are taken-up by new customers every hour and it should help us in trying to control the spread of Coronavirus by limiting the number of hours you can sit and be exposed," said Elrich, who added, "Let me be clear about this – and we’ve said this before -- everything we do that opens something up increases the risk of spread."
Elrich told reporters their coronavirus numbers are low because the county has been "more protective for a long time." Elrich acknowledged the business sector is "truly the collateral damage in all this" and that "it’s one of the unfortunate things about making decisions that maximize public health, is those same decisions are detrimental to the operation of businesses."
Questions were asked about equity in vaccine distribution, which the county leaders say is a significant issue they are trying to address, there were also questions raised of public and private school vaccinations.
On the indoor dining ban front, FOX 5 again asked for the data and science behind the county’s decisions. On Wednesday, county leaders responded with answers that spoke less to the science, and more toward their roles in trying to balance risk to the community as this pandemic continues.
"To be honest about this, money can be replaced, businesses can be restarted, loved ones cannot be replaced," said Elrich, also recognizing the damage to county businesses in their public health decisions.
On Wednesday, Montgomery County reported 59,292 coronavirus cases and 1,269 deaths. While the seven-day average of confirmed cases per 100,000 residents still equates to a "very high risk of transmission" status at 26.7 reported on Tuesday, February 2nd, that number is still significantly down from 49.8 reported on January 12th.
In an earlier conversation about the continued indoor dining ban in Montgomery County, the county’s emergency management director told FOX 5 they saw a 40-60% decrease in restaurant worker coronavirus cases once the indoor dining ban went into effect as an example of their mitigation efforts.
FOX 5 asked what else, aside from the restaurant worker figure, has county officials pointing toward indoor dining closing as a significant reason for metric drops, Elrich answered, "We didn’t say that dining was the sole factor in lower numbers…"
Elrich continued, "…but we think collectively, we’ve done a lot of things that are more proactive – more protective – over time and if you look at our charts, you look at the state’s charts, that for month’s we’ve been toward the lower half of the state, more in-line with the smaller counties than with the bigger counties."
You can actually compare the county’s progress back-to-back with the other Maryland jurisdictions here.
What information does the county have to suggest county residents weren’t going to outside jurisdictions to eat indoors as Montgomery County closed indoor dining?
"As far as dining goes, I’m sure people have gone to other places where they could. But everybody has limitations even when they were opening, so it’s not like it was a free world out there where you could go full capacity in the area around us …" said Elrich.
When asked again if FOX 5 can see the restaurant worker data and whether that data included workers who both live and work in the county, Dr. Earl Stoddard, answered, "So we looked at the weeks preceding our implementation of our – the dining ban, we were averaging in the state report 48.33 cases per report, that were restaurant workers. They are restaurant workers that live in Montgomery, so they could technically work outside of Montgomery County, but they are people in Montgomery County by residency who identify as restaurant workers. After the indoor dining ban, that dropped to 31 cases. So that was including the most recent the most report, a 37 percent drop, I believe it is, in total cases on average per week."
"I don’t know that, for example, that you know every single person who drinks and drives is going to cause an accident, but I know that drinking and driving is dangerous. I know for a fact that dining indoors without a face covering is a dangerous activity. There are studies across the country that demonstrate that time and time again" said Stoddard.
"We know how to take action to prevent the spread of coronavirus, so now that we know that. Now that we’ve been given a way to operate safely, why then does the county executive feel like he needs to take it upon himself to supersede the orders of the governor to keep us shut?," said Duck Duck Goose restaurant owner Ashish Alfred after the Wednesday news conference.
"And I also would love to know where it is written somewhere that the coronavirus comes out in 62 minutes and not 59 minutes," Alfred added, speaking to the proposed one-hour dining limit.
While the Bethesda and Baltimore restaurant owner says moving to 25% is a step in the right direction, he is still among the many restaurateurs frustrated with county leadership, who will still not give what metric thresholds they are using to implement their dining bans and reopening decisions.
Montgomery County Chief Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles told FOX 5 in part of his response, "… when other jurisdictions did open up their restaurants, we didn’t jump to do so because we didn’t have the surveillance data to suggest that we were moving in the right direction in terms of downward trends … we consistently said that before we would move to a next step or change to policy that we would have in place, we would like to see a couple of weeks of information and data points to suggested that those improvements and numbers and those downward trends were sustained."
Alfred said these actions are not only hurting business owners but the many families behind those businesses. "These are parents, these are mothers these are fathers, these are sisters, these are brothers, these are people who pay mortgages," said Alfred, who called some of the restaurants impacted "a very vital part of the fabric that makes up that community."
"Where is the data that drives these decisions, because when you make a decision that has that much specificity where you saying, ‘Okay, people can dine inside for one hour, they have to leave after the hour and then we can seat somebody else,’ I would imagine that if you’re going to get that granular with the restrictions, then there’s some science that’s led you to be that granular," the Maryland business owner emphasized.
Stoddard affirmed he still does not believe indoor dining is safe. The county is also now monitoring two cases involving the South African variant and the UK variant detected in the region.
Stoddard told reporters with the variants confirmed in the area, there is now a race to vaccinate people. He’s encouraging residents to stay vigilant in their social distancing and safety measures.