On Tuesday, December 15, at 1 pm, the Montgomery County Council will introduce, hold a public hearing, and vote on a resolution and Board of Health Regulation that would approve Executive Order 139-20 on the COVID-19 Local Order amending and restating the order dated November 10. If approved by the council, Executive Order 139-20 would go into effect that day, December 15, 2020, at 5 pm. See the press release. The major changes from the last executive order include the following:
suspends indoor dining at restaurants;
restricts outdoor dining hours to 6 am through 10 pm, to comply with the Governor Hogan’s latest executive order;
changes maximum capacity to one person per 200 square feet of retail space, not to exceed 150 persons, and specifically includes large retailers and grocery stores; and
removes automatic approval to exceed gathering limits to accommodate parents, guardians and immediate family at sports events. Sports would follow social gathering size limitations.
Due to the COVID-19 state of emergency, the public may not attend the public hearing but is welcome to participate in other ways: by calling 240-777-7900 with your opinion; testifying by phone (registration is required); providing audio, video and written testimony online; filing comments or suggestions online; mailing written comments to County Council, 100 Maryland Avenue, Rockville, MD 20850; or by sending an email to email@example.com. The hearing will be televised on Cable Montgomery and live-streamed on the County Council’s website, Facebook Live and YouTube pages. See the press release for details.
It’s been awhile since I’ve done a COVID-19 update, but with the recent surge, it seemed appropriate. Here are the latest White Flint/Pike District area numbers courtesy of Delegate Marc Korman (who posts them daily on his social media.)
The Montgomery County testing portal is a useful list of places where you can get tested. (I was tested a couple of weeks ago at one of the county sites and got results back (thankfully negative!) in just 3 days.)
Don’t forget about Montgomery County’s new directive: a face covering must be worn when you are likely to come into contact with another person, such as being within six feet of another person for more than a fleeting time and must be worn unless a person is actively engaged in eating or drinking. And no gatherings of more than ten people.
Washington metro area job growth in April was an unprecedented -319,200, or a loss of approximately 10% of the region’s total employment. The regional unemployment rate also skyrocketed to 9.9% in April, compared to 3.3% in March 2020 and 2.8% in April 2019. The economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis has been wildly uneven among individual business sectors, with some faring far worse than others.
Commercial real estate in the region has been moderately affected by the pandemic, although much of the industry is in a wait-and-see pattern. According to a survey by The Associated General Contractors of America of the Northeast region, 15% of respondents mentioned they have been notified to cease projects that were underway in May. About 33% of respondents are experiencing project delays due to a shortage of personal protective equipment, and another 28% reported a shortage of construction material. However, domestic production of materials and a national slowdown in construction activity has resulted in a reduction in some construction costs.
Delta conducted a survey of multifamily real estate developers in the Washington metro area to gauge the impact of COVID-19 on scheduled groundbreakings. About half of the respondents have experienced delays due to the difficulty in obtaining financing. Despite delays for some planned multifamily projects, several have started construction amid the pandemic.
A Delta survey of property management firms showed that the pandemic has significantly altered operations of multifamily buildings, including: the closure of common areas, adjustment to cleaning routines, the closure of leasing offices to the public, and the widespread use of virtual tours. During the months of April and May, data from the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) shows that rent collection rates in the U.S. were down in 2020 compared to the same months in 2019, but not as much as expected.
They determined that while the Washington multifamily market has underperformed rapidly growing metros in the Sunbelt and West Coast since the Great Recession, it is better positioned to weather a down cycle than nearly all its peers. They expect minimal delays in deliveries of apartment projects already underway due to the pandemic. The pandemic will likely cause delays in projected construction starts n the second half of 2020, which will reduce the number of deliveries in 2022 and into 2023, well after the end of the medical emergency (hopefully); however, the short-term impacts will be minimal.
They project that deliveries of Class A office space will outpace absorption in all three substate areas over the next year. In turn, they project a rise in vacancy in office space by Q1 2021, reaching close to 5.0% in the metro area compared to 4.4% as of the first quarter of 2020. Rent growth will remain below average and likely turn negative in several submarkets.
While the pandemic will likely not lead to large, permanent migratory shifts away from urban areas, there may be some changes to the design of existing and new multifamily buildings. Some building design features and trends that are likely to become more prevalent going forward include: retrofitting buildings with contactless opening technology, redesigning common areas and amenity space to accommodate social distancing, such as creating office pods or spacing equipment in the fitness center, and adding a greater amount of dedicated workspace in units. COVID-19 will leave its mark on multifamily design just as other market disruptions have over the years.
Governor Larry Hogan recently announced that Maryland’s statewide COVID-19 positivity rate has reached a new all-time low of 3.62%. He also said that positivity rate among for those under 35 has dropped nearly 30% since July 23, to 4.78%. The state’s hospitalization metrics continue to plateau, with ICU beds dropping below 120 for the first time since July 14.
Montgomery County’s positivity rate has dropped to 2.94%. On Saturday, the county had 121 new confirmed cases of COVID-19. This is a daily case growth of 0.6%, marking the 32nd consecutive day the increase was less than 1%.
On Saturday, the county added 121 new confirmed cases of COVID-19, bringing its total to 18,260 since the pandemic began in mid-March. There have been 763 confirmed deaths from the virus in Montgomery County.
A recent study in Paris found that none of 150 identified coronavirus infection clusters from early May to early June originated on the city’s transit systems. A similar study in Austria found that not one of 355 case clusters in April and May was traceable to riding transit. Though these systems, like their American counterparts, were carrying fewer riders at a lower density than before the pandemic, the results suggest a far less sinister role for transit than the MIT report described.
If transit itself were a global super-spreader, then a large outbreak would have been expected in dense Hong Kong, a city of 7.5 million people dependent on a public transportation system that, before the pandemic, was carrying 12.9 million people a day. Ridership there, according to the Post, fell considerably less than in other transit systems around the world. Yet Hong Kong has recorded only about 1,100 COVID-19 cases, one-tenth the number in Kansas, which has fewer than half as many people. Replicating Hong Kong’s success may involve safety measures, such as mask wearing, that are not yet ingrained in the U.S., but the evidence only underscores that the coronavirus can spread outside of transit and dense urban environments—which are not inherently harmful.
Hard-hit cities such as Milan that have reopened their transit systems have not seen subsequent infection spikes. Japan, which has some of the world’s busiest rail networks, had very few infections at all—only about 17,000, less than 1 percent of that of the U.S.—and no reported upticks in Tokyo since Japan began reopening its economy. Officials traced a post-peak outbreak in Seoul, South Korea, not to transit but to a lack of social distancing at the city’s reopened nightclubs.
Something that Japanese and many other Asian cities have in common is a long-standing culture of wearing face coverings in public. Scientists have not yet determined precisely how effective masks are at reducing virus transmission—and how safe transit would be if everyone wore them—but even imperfect face coverings appear to confer benefits when most people wear them. Buses and trains where masked riders silently browse their phones may prove less risky than other settings where patrons are talking loudly and singing.
It’s difficult for nuances like these to break through when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells American employers to encourage employees to avoid transit and to drive alone to work in offices, if possible. This message, which bewildered transit agencies scrambling to recover, fails to recognize the transportation realities of millions of Americans for whom owning and maintaining a car is simply unaffordable and impractical.
During the early stages of reopening, Maryland’s largest county quickly turned downtown streets into open-air dining. Officials closed roads near trails to create temporary greenways, making more space for overcrowded trail users.
As people have been stuck at home, traffic has dipped way down. Some people are reluctant to get into shared, enclosed spaces like buses and ride-hailing vehicles. So cities across the world are developing new strategies: adding hundreds of miles of new bike lanes, creating “streateries” and repurposing streets for recreation.
Streets along trails in Aspen Hill and Silver Spring have been closed to thru traffic to allow more space for trail users. Greenways may also soon come to areas like Wheaton, Glenmont, Silver Spring, Takoma Park and Forest Glen.
These smaller closures on neighborhood streets are a one-time request that can be made by any resident.
MCDOT will come set up signs block off half of the road with a “road closed to thru traffic” sign at the ends of the area to help cut down on traffic and alert drivers that the block is being used for walking and cycling. Drivers can still use the streets but they must slow down and share the street with people. The one-time request can be for a Monday through Thursday closure or a Friday through Sunday closure.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich and County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles today announced the County has achieved its benchmarks and will officially enter Phase 2 of reopening on Friday, June 19 at 5 p.m.
The County plans to continue with an incremental reopening, based on public health data. Phase 2 allows additional businesses and activities to start and/or increase modified operations under specified guidelines. The guidelines include:
Retail – curbside and limited in-store; one patron per 200 sq. ft. of sales space; Restaurants – outdoor/patio seating and limited indoor dining with requirements; up to 50 percent capacity maximum indoors if social distancing can be maintained; Childcare – childcare programs can reopen with a maximum of 15 individuals per classroom; Gyms – fitness centers, and other indoor physical activities; open with requirements; one patron per 200 sq. ft. of fitness space; Houses of Worship – virtual, drive-in, and limited indoor and outdoor services with requirements – one congregant/family unit per 200 sq. ft. of service space; Indoor and Outdoor Gatherings – limited to a maximum of 50 or one person/family unit per 200 sq. ft., whichever is lower Salons/Barbers/Nails – all personal services allowed by appointment only; one patron per 200 sq. ft. of service delivery space; Car Washes – open for internal and external cleaning with requirements; Office Spaces and Multi-tenant Commercial Buildings – limited use for nonessential personnel with requirements; telework strongly encouraged where applicable; Indoor and Outdoor pools (public and private) – open with capacity restrictions; Outdoor Day Camps – expanded opening with requirements; Outdoor Youth Sports – expanded for low-contact sports with requirements; Parks & Playgrounds – parks open for personal fitness and fitness classes with requirements; playgrounds open with requirements; only low-contact sports allowed; Ride On Bus Service – expanded schedule; expanded routes. Certain outdoor recreation activities and facilities are already permitted: golf courses, archery, shooting ranges, marinas, campgrounds, horseback riding facilities and tennis courts.
The following businesses and services will remain closed in Phase 2:
Concerts and theaters Senior centers Libraries Recreation facilities.
Protective measures such as maintaining physical distancing, careful cleaning and disinfecting, and face coverings being worn by employees and customers, are just some of the measures being required of businesses that are in this second phase of recovery.
Activities allowed in this phase of reopening are based on metrics the County established with progress overall in decreasing daily numbers of new cases, increasing testing capacity, implementing a large-scale contact tracing effort with the State, decreasing hospitalizations and use of the emergency room by patients with COVID-19 related symptoms, and positive trends in the death rate and test positivity. The COVID-19 Data Dashboard can be viewed on the County’s website.
In his message Friday to county residents, County Executive Elrich said:
I know that reopening our County in the wake of the COVID-19 health crisis is foremost on everyone’s mind. I want you to know that I am committed to working to protect the health of our residents as best as possible. That is how we made decisions for Phase I of our reopening, which began on Monday.
On Wednesday, Governor Larry Hogan announced Phase II of the reopening of Maryland. Each county has been allowed to enact reopening procedures in a manner that is best for its residents. We are proceeding based on the science and data and in consultation with our public health officer and other health experts. Our decisions and actions are similar to those of our neighboring jurisdictions.
For now, we are maintaining the stay-at-home order. We are evaluating Governor Hogan’s new Executive Order and are in the process of determining if any of his Phase II provisions will work with our Phase I policies and guidelines. Following guidelines from the CDC and other public health experts, each phase should have about 14 days of improvement before moving to the next phase.
Please know that we are actively trying to drop the number of new cases, especially through increased testing and contact tracing. When new cases of COVID-19 show up, those people most likely did not know they were carriers. The quicker we can identify carriers who don’t show symptoms, the easier it is to slow the spread. We are aggressively pursuing multiple testing possibilities. As you can imagine, it is a complicated process involving tracking individual tests and results and payments for tests. We are planning these efforts with a first focus on areas around the County and in facilities that are hardest hit.
I have an obligation to all of you to be cautious in our decisions. Montgomery County still has the State’s second-highest number of COVID-19 cases. That is why we will continue to follow the data and science to ensure that our residents, visitors and businesses are safe and that we slow the spread of COVID-19 in our County and the region.
Shady Grove Transfer Stations Reopens
The Shady Grove transfer station resumes normal operations today, after being closed due to the pandemic. The facility’s hours are 7 am-5 pm Monday through Saturday (at both entrances) and 9 am-5 pm on Sunday (Route 355 entrance only).
Business Microenterprise Stabilization Program financial assistance applications
Montgomery County will begin accepting applications to its Microenterprise Stabilization Program (MSP) from 10 am Wednesday, June 10 through 5 pm on Tuesday, June 16. The form will be posted on the MSP site on June 10. Visit the site now for information on eligibility requirements and required documentation.
The MSP, developed in response to the COVID-19 health crisis, is designed to provide financial assistance to Montgomery County for-profit businesses with five or fewer employees, businesses with no employees, including sole proprietors and independent contractors, that experienced a loss in revenue as a result of the current health crisis.
Montgomery County Releases Additional Guidance for Business Reopening and Recovery
As Montgomery County continues reopening as part of Phase 1 of the COVID-19 pandemic recovery, County officials released additional guidance to help business owners as they bring their organizations back online. This guidance, in the form of a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) document, can be found on the Montgomery County website.
These FAQs guide business owners to the proper documentation in areas such as outdoor dining, requirements for reopening, and information about looking ahead to Phases 2 and 3 of recovery.