Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

This story was updated at 2:50 p.m. Jan. 4, 2022, to add more comments from Tuesday’s meeting, and more details. 

The Montgomery County Council voted unanimously Tuesday to extend the indoor mask mandate for the rest of January, as the number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have increased in recent weeks. 

The indoor mask mandate has been in effect countywide since mid-November. It was set to be lifted when 85% of the county’s population was fully vaccinated against the coronavirus — a standard the county is close to reaching.

But health officials recommended that — amid rising case counts and hospitalizations, spurred by the omicron variant — that the mask mandate should be left in place, at least through the current surge.

The County Council, acting as the Board of Health, approved an amended indoor mask mandate that will go into effect at midnight at the start of Wednesday. It includes:

  • Removing the trigger to end the mandate when 85% of the county’s population is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 data tracker. As of Wednesday morning, that metric was at 83.3%.
  • Removing the trigger to end the mandate once the county enters seven days of “moderate transmission,” as defined by the CDC. Moderate transmission is 10 to 49.99 cases per 100,000 residents, over a seven-day period 
  • Keeping the indoor mandate in place until the Board of Health takes further action, and requiring the body to meet every two weeks to review the mandate
  • Eliminating language that required the county executive’s office to provide regular updates on a proposed vaccination mandate for county employees

Council Member Andrew Friedson proposed an amendment that set a new date for the automatic end of the mask mandate: Jan. 31, 2022. If nothing changes by then, the mask mandate would end at 11:59 p.m. on that date.

Friedson said Tuesday that this termination date aligns with other local jurisdictions, including Washington, D.C., which has an indoor mask mandate that is set to expire at 6 a.m. on Jan. 31.

During a public hearing before Tuesday’s vote, at least half a dozen residents opposed the mask mandate extension. They said that cloth masks, seen commonly throughout the community, were ineffective in controlling the spread of the virus, and that hospitalizations should be focused on more than case rates at this point.

They also were concerned that the mask mandate extension was the latest attempt for the council to continue the mandate indefinitely. Some argued that personal responsibility and risk assessment should be considered more than government intervention, almost two years into the pandemic.

One resident testified in support of the extension. She said she had family members who are immunocompromised and at-risk, and that masks — especially surgical and medical-grade masks, when properly used — are an effective tool in curbing the spread of the virus.

The CDC says mask use can help slow the spread of COVID-19, along with social distancing.

“Studies demonstrate that cloth mask materials can also reduce wearers’ exposure to infectious droplets through filtration, including filtration of fine droplets and particles less than 10 microns,” the CDC says. Multiple layers of cloth, with higher thread counts, are more helpful than single layers. 

In an interview last month, Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard addressed the need to focus on hospitalizations more, rather than case counts. But he added that case counts shouldn’t be ignored completely.

“There is, however, a level of case rate that we simply cannot ignore where we want to operate everything that we feel we should have to operate,” Stoddard said. “If people aren’t ending up in the hospital, but so many people are sick that we can’t staff a school, we should care about that.”

“On the edges, meaning on the extreme high edge of case rates, we can’t ignore that,” he added. “I just can’t see how we as a civil society can accept having to randomly shut down schools for two weeks, or not be able to open a restaurant on a Friday night because you don’t have enough staff. Those are the kind of implications I expect if we just allow any case rate.”

Before Tuesday’s vote, multiple council members said that while some residents might be frustrated by the change, the metrics support it.

Friedson, who sponsored the amendment to end the mandate on Jan. 31, acknowledged that council members would need to meet in coming weeks to continuously monitor the situation.

“We’re doing this because we’re in a very serious and sobering moment,” Friedson said.

Council Member Nancy Navarro said the new mandate reflects the challenges that health care systems, hospitals, government entities and others are dealing with in the latest surge of cases.

Council Member Craig Rice said he often disagrees with friends and family about certain COVID-related policy decisions, not just people on social media or those who testify.

“We’re not just picking some phantom date, some phantom numbers,” Rice said in response to concerns. “These numbers are incredibly high right now. … Some of it may be protected by masks and some may not be, I acknowledge that,” Rice said.

“I understand that people said, ‘Let us protect ourselves,’ but when I put my hand on that Bible and swore that I would make sure that I would upheld the best for the county I was born in, the county that I love and the residents that I don’t know … I’m going to continue to do that,” Rice added.

Council Vice President Evan Glass expressed a similar view, saying one of his duties as an elected official is to “promote the general welfare,” a reference to the U.S. Constitution.

He added that Friedson’s amendment of a Jan. 31 termination date was not an “off-ramp,” as some described, but actually a “traffic light … flashing yellow.”

That means the council will need to re-evaluate the decision in the coming weeks. 

“On Jan. 31, we will still be at this intersection, and we will decide whether we move forward or if we need to make a turn based on the science and the data,” Glass said.

County Council President Gabe Albornoz said the regulation would be reviewed further on Jan. 25, the last scheduled full County Council meeting before Jan. 31.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com 

Steve Bohnel

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com