The Garrett County Commissioner held an emergency public meeting on Zoom today in response to Governor Larry Hogan's press conference from May 13 where he addressed plans to begin implementing Stage One of his reopening plans referred to as "Maryland Strong Roadmap to Recovery". Commission Chair, Paul Edwards read into the public record an amendment to an earlier executive order. The amendment reflected input from local health officer, Bob Stephens, the Garrett County Health Department, other local health personnel, and the director of Emergency Management and Emergency Services. Garrett County adopted a local state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 22 and extended the order on April 21. Although the state of emergency will remain in effect the announced amendment will modify its parameters to allow "stage one" from the Maryland Strong Roadmap to Recovery "low risk" activities outlined by the Hogan administration. The earlier closing of all Transient Vacation Rental Units, (TVRUs) and rental properties have been rescinded and will be allowed to reopen effective May 14, 2020, provided their operations comply with certain mandatory guidelines which include remote check-in and enhanced cleaning using EPA or CDC approved disinfectants in high-touch, high-traffic areas. Owners must also comply with guidelines from the Vacation Rental Management Association. Employees overseeing or cleaning rental units will be required to follow protocols that protect themselves and guests through proper cleaning and self-safety measures and practicing personal hygiene. Guests are required to use remote check-in and are encouraged to bring their own groceries, cleaning items, and supplies to reduce the burden on the local community. Guests are also asked to follow state and local safety guidelines that include social distancing and wearing face masks in public establishments, using hand sanitizers, and engaging in frequent hand washing. If a guest becomes symptomatic or tests positive for the virus, they are required to self-isolate and contact TVRU or rental property owners immediately before checking out so the health dept and cleaning staff can respond promptly and responsibly. "Gatherings of more than 10 is still prohibited," said Edwards. "Phase-one does not change that." He also pointed out that groups of more than 10 non-family members in rental units are still prohibited. Edwards expressed that the Commissioner reserve the right to reverse their decision in the event there is a marked increase in locally confirmed cases of COVID-19 requiring intensive care, people are not practicing social distancing guidelines or a significant outbreak occurs where contact tracing cannot identify a source. "Restaurants and bars are not being opened," said Edwards to address questions he received following Hogan's address. "They are still closed for in-house or outdoor dining. Curbside pickup and delivery are still okay but nothing has changed with restaurants and bars with this [amendment]." Garrett County is a popular tourist destination with many second homes and vacation rental properties, prompting area residents to have expressed concerns over visitors entering the county from more highly infected areas. Hogan's travel restrictions eased tensions early on as confirmed cases escalated near the Baltimore/D.C. metro areas.
"The travel ban has been lifted," said Edwards. "So you may travel now freely throughout the state." Lifting travel restrictions and the move from "Stay at Home" to "Safer at Home" is going to require more self-management from people venturing outside their communities and entering Garrett County that has been fortunate to have a limited number of reported cases of the coronavirus. Garrett County Health Officer, Bob Stephens joined the meeting following the approved amendment that moves the county into its earliest stages of recovery. "Garrett County has been very blessed to have low numbers of infections," Stephens said. "We are in fact the lowest in the state and that's really good news." Garrett County has reported only 6 confirmed cases with neighboring Allegany County reporting 150 cases as of the meeting. More densely populated areas like Montgomery and Baltimore Counties follow slightly behind Prince George's County that tops the state with 10,449 confirmed cases and 397 deaths. Statewide, 35, 903 cases have been confirmed and 1,748 deaths as of the May 14 meeting. "I would like to reemphasize that we are all still at some risk," said the health officer. "There will be new transmissions from time to time and our goal is for all of this to limit the spread of COVID-19." Stephens referred to this next phase as moving from "government-imposed restrictions" to shifting the burden of controlling the pandemic's spread to "personal responsibility". "It's all of our responsibility to protect our neighbors, our families, and our friends through things like social distancing, washing our hands, and limiting travel in the community," he said. "If you make one trip to the grocery store instead of five, that's five times as good, so please limit your travel around the community." The "Maryland Strong Back to Business Pledge" was presented by Stephens as a public declaration for business owners committed to protecting their businesses, their staff, and their customers. Compliant businesses are asked to take the pledge and post the sign at their establishment for their customers and employees peace of mind. "I would encourage you to support those businesses who are taking that pledge," said Stephens. If personal responsibility is not sufficient to stop the spread of the virus, Stephens warned area residents that everyone may be forced to go back to government interventions either on a state or local level. Something, he points out, "none of us want." Other businesses that are able to open up are specifically mentioned in the Governor's order. Many are opening with limited capacity and strict guidelines to preserve the progress the state has already made. Questions about the coronavirus can be directed to the Garrett County Health Department COVID Hotline at 301-334-7698. The full amendment from today's meeting will be posted on the Garrett County Government and Health Department websites.