This story was updated at 4:15 p.m. Oct. 29, 2021, to add details about the case rate the county uses to determine “substantial transmission” of COVID-19. It was updated at 4:30 p.m. to include more details about when county officials believed the mask mandate could be reinstated. It was updated at 5:45 p.m. to include that the Board of Health is meeting Tuesday to review the Board of Health order involving the mask mandate. It was updated at 8:20 p.m. to include more information about that meeting from County Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz.
The county’s indoor mask mandate — which was lifted Thursday because of a drop in the COVID-19 case rate — will soon go back into effect, a senior county official said Friday.
It was unclear when the mandate would go back into effect, although it probably would not be over the weekend, according to Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard.
Stoddard wrote in a text message to Bethesda Beat early Friday afternoon that James Bridgers, the county’s acting health officer, was preparing a notice required by the Board of Health order implementing the indoor mask mandate, which County Council members sanctioned in early August. The order requires reinstating the mandate after one day of “substantial transmission.”
County Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz, however, said in an interview Friday evening that Council Members were expecting a memo from Bridgers Friday night that would propose a change to that order. The County Council doubles as the Board of Health.
It’s unclear whether the mask mandate could take effect before or after the change might be adopted. But Albornoz said the council would likely consider an amendment that would require seven days of “substantial transmission” for the mask mandate to be reinstated, rather than one day.
“We are going to be meeting on Tuesday and yes, it is to address the yo-yo effect,” Alboronoz said, referencing how the county reached the threshold to reinstate the mask mandate so quickly after it was lifted.
Substantial transmission is 50 to 99.99 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people, over a seven-day period. Given the county’s population and the Board of Health order, county officials had previously said that once the county enters “substantial” transmission for one day, based on a seven-day rate, the mandate would be reinstated.
On Friday afternoon, the county’s COVID-19 dashboard showed there were 50.6 cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period, moving the county back into substantial transmission.
Sean O’Donnell, the public health emergency manager for the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, told reporters Monday that the mask mandate could end after seven straight days of substantial transmission, but added that he needed to check the Board of Health order.
Later in the week, officials said the county only needed to see one day of substantial transmission for the mandate to be reinstated.
“Our reading of the [Board of Health] Order is that as soon as we proceed back into substantial transmission for even one day, the Health Officer would be required by the [Board of Health] Order to send a notice of the transmission change to the Board of Health thus reactivating the mask mandate,” Stoddard wrote in an email on Tuesday.
Stoddard added that Bridgers and officials have sent “an informal notice” to the council. A formal notice would be sent once the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updates its data, allowing the county to confirm case levels.
“CDC will likely update [its data] tomorrow. At that point, I believe Dr. Bridgers intends to allow a few days for the requirement to take effect. Masks will not take back over at 12:01 a.m.,” Stoddard wrote in a text message early Friday afternoon.
“[It] won’t be in effect over the weekend. When we first implemented masks in August, we provided a few days notice. I expect we will do the exact same thing again,” Stoddard added.
County Council Member Andrew Friedson and County Executive Marc Elrich could not immediately be reached for comment via phone Friday.
County Council President Tom Hucker also confirmed in a text message Friday that the council would meet as the Board of Health on Tuesday to review and potentially change the order involving the mask mandate.
Earlier in the week, Stoddard wrote in an email that the mask mandate, which expired at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, could be reinstated if the county re-entered “substantial transmission,” per CDC guidelines.
For the mask mandate to be lifted, the county needs to report seven straight days of “moderate transmission.” According to CDC guidelines, moderate transmission is defined as 10 to 49.99 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people, over a seven-day period.
In other words, the county needed to see a week with fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 people, calculated over a seven-day period, per the county’s COVID-19 dashboard.
The clock starts once the county enters moderate transmission. Officials have said the clock resets if, at any point in the following seven days, the county re-enters substantial transmission.
Steve Bohnel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org