Movie Theaters Cleared To Reopen As Coronavirus Cases Surge

Eufemia Didonato

ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY, MD — Anne Arundel movie theaters and performance venues can reopen next week, County Executive Steuart Pittman announced Friday afternoon. These businesses may unlock their doors at 9 a.m. on Sept. 25.

Indoor venues may open at 50 percent capacity or 100 people-per-auditorium, whichever is less. This limit is broken down by each hall, not by each building. In theory, the whole movie theater could have more than 100 customers inside. Each auditorium, however, may not exceed 100 viewers at a time.

Outdoor locations also face a capacity cap of 50 percent or 100 patrons, whichever is less. Both indoor and outdoor theaters must institute appropriate health and safety protocols, Pittman’s order mandates.

The announcement comes two weeks after most of the state entered the third and final stage of coronavirus recovery. Gov. Larry Hogan gave jurisdictions permission to move into this last phase starting Sept. 4, but counties may proceed at their own pace, he said. Hogan’s declaration allows all Maryland businesses to reopen, but only when their jurisdiction permits.

“When Governor Hogan authorized limited re-opening of theaters earlier this month, our county’s coronavirus numbers were rising,” Pittman said in a press release. “We chose a cautious approach.”

Even with Pittman’s announcement, the county will stay put in the second step of healing. Anne Arundel County is one of four Maryland jurisdictions to remain in Stage 2 of coronavirus recovery.

Baltimore City, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County are the only other areas to delay further openings. The remaining 20 counties moved into the third and final phase immediately after Hogan’s decree.

Pittman said he will not make a sweeping transition into Stage 3, as similar moves swelled cases in the past. He instead suggested that reopenings will come in baby steps.

Before this opening, Pittman monitored the impact that theaters had on other counties. The county executive said he made his decision after a Thursday meeting with his coronavirus recovery team.

In that conference, County’s Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman presented a set of data that highlighted a spike in cases. Kalyanaraman says this surge may be explained by colleges that have instituted mass testing for students returning to campus.

The top health official is still concerned by the upward trend of infections in Anne Arundel County. His presentation ended with a list of potential steps that included “Further limiting indoor and outdoor dining” and “Limiting outdoor events this fall.”

At virtual town hall on Tuesday, Pittman defended his hesitation to fully open the county. He said his top priority was driving cases down so schools can reopen as soon as possible.

The county executive announced the reopening of theaters three days later.

“Like all other openings, this one has the potential to increase the spread of coronavirus at a time when we must reduce case rates to meet the school reopening metrics set forth by the state,” Pittman said. “Please, wear your mask and maintain social distance.”

Coronavirus Statistics Update

The most recent data clock Anne Arundel County’s positivity rate at 3.72 percent, which is 0.51 percent higher than the statewide clip. The percent positivity started to decline after a recent spike to 4.45 percent on Sept. 7. That peak was nearly double the county’s pandemic-low of 2.29 percent, which it registered on Aug. 16.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says municipalities should aim to keep their positivity rate below 5 percent. When counties hit this mark, Maryland health leaders say it is likely safe to return to schools for hybrid instruction.

Though Anne Arundel meets the positivity rate recommendation, school officials still started the fall semester with online classes. Anne Arundel County Public Schools previously committed to distance learning for the first two marking periods.

The state has challenged AACPS’s decision over the last few weeks. Hogan recently urged schools to start considering a hybrid model. AACPS responded by reaffirming its immediate commitment to remote learning while also speeding up its plans for eventual hybrid classes.

As of now, school is online until at least the start of the third marking period, which begins on Feb. 2, 2021. Pittman hopes to implement his hybrid strategy before then, however.

“My goal first and foremost in all of this is to save lives,” Pittman said at the town hall on Tuesday. “We’re still at-risk and we still have people that are likely to die from this. We want to save as many lives as we can.”

Anne Arundel County has been under the 5 percent benchmark since June 22. The local positivity rate topped out at 28.24 percent on April 16.

While the jurisdiction meets the percent positive guideline, it does not meet the state’s new infections-per-capita marker. State health officials say municipalities should aim for less than five new coronavirus cases-per-day per 100,000 people. When an area hits this case rate goal, the state says it is probably safe to reopen the district’s schools for expanded in-person learning.

Anne Arundel County’s case rate aligns with Maryland’s trends. It hit an initial peak of 13.84 on June 3 before receding to its minimum of 3.53 by June 26.

A second surge spiked Anne Arundel’s case rate to its overall peak of 14.26 on Aug. 2. Infections quelled by Aug. 20, dropping the case rate to 6.93.

After a brief downturn, a third wave accelerated the county’s infections once more. The case rate now sits at 12.5, which is more than double the requirement to return to expanded in-person instruction

The county must average less than 28.96 new coronavirus infections-per-day over a rolling week to meet the state’s per-capita suggestion. Anne Arundel County has averaged 74 new cases-per-day during the last seven days.

Anne Arundel County has the fifth most coronavirus infections in the state, with 9,504. The virus has killed 231 county residents.

Coronavirus-related hospitalizations have seen an uptick recently. The virus had 22 Anne Arundel County residents in the hospital on Aug. 26. That was the lowest since April 3 when 21 locals were hospitalized. Thursday saw 34 hospitalizations.

Fewer than 50 coronavirus patients have been in the hospital at a time since June 14. The county’s recent high of 49 hospitalizations came on July 24. More than 170 people were hospitalized in Anne Arundel County on the pandemic’s April 21 peak.

“We’re all a little bit weary of this pandemic,” Pittman said. “We all just wish it would go away.”

The Economy

Hogan gave counties further liberty to increase business volumes on Friday. Whenever local governments second his move, restaurants can increase their capacities to 75 percent. They were previously limited to half capacity.

When Pittman permits, retail stores and houses of worship can operate at a 75 percent capacity, Hogan says. They are currently capped at half their usual crowd size.

Outdoor venues also have the governor’s approval to host crowds of up to 250 people. Jurisdictions must okay these measures before business can further reopen. The county executive has not yet indicated interest in any of these motions, however.

“I want to remind the people of Maryland that moving into stage 3 does not mean that this crisis is behind us,” Hogan said in his Sept. 1 announcement that jurisdictions can further reopen. “We must remain vigilant so we can keep Maryland open for business.”

Marylanders are steadily returning to work as restrictions ease. Since peaking at 10.1 percent in April, the state’s unemployment rate has fallen each month.

Now, 6.9 percent of the labor force is out of a job. In comparison, the unemployment rate was 3.3 percent in February, a month before coronavirus shutdowns began.

While Maryland still has a way to go before it reaches its pre-coronavirus economy, the state is still faring better than most of the country. The national unemployment rate sits at 8.4 percent, which is down from its recent high of 14.7 percent in April.

The overall unemployment stats are updated less frequently at the county level. The latest figures show that 21,277 people, or 6.7 percent of Anne Arundel County workers, were without a job in July. That’s down 3.1 percent from the county’s pandemic-high, which it registered in May.

The number of new unemployment claims are updated each week, offering a more timely overview of county economies. The freshest report comes from the week ending on Sept. 12.

That week, Anne Arundel County tallied 887 first-time unemployment insurance claims. The county’s worst stint came during the week of Aril 4, when it saw 10,573 new claims. In comparison, Anne Arundel counted 146 first-time claims in the week of March 5, which was when Hogan declared a state of emergency in response to the state’s coronavirus outbreak.

Maryland has added 156,000 jobs since recovery efforts began, said Kelly Schulz, the secretary for the state Department of Commerce. She attributes the economic revival to the $175 million in grants and loans that her department sent to thousands of local businesses.

Safety remains a top priority for Schulz, who said her team has met with 13 different industries to develop safe reopening guidelines. That partnership involved leaders from the tourism, manufacturing, retail, dining and attractions sectors, among others.

The group assembled a list of safety recommendations specific to each field. The suggestions include staggering employees’ shifts to minimize potential coronavirus exposure and placing signs and barriers to aid social distancing. These tips are available in Maryland’s Back to Business portal.

“We’ve helped them keep their doors open, pay their bills and keep their employees on their payrolls,” Schulz said of Maryland business owners. “We have stayed strong during this pandemic, and we will remain vigilant. We are, in fact, keeping Maryland open for business.”

Masks are still required in all public places in Maryland where social distancing is not possible. This includes all outdoor and indoor areas like town centers, shops and restaurants.

Hogan reminded residents to continue their coronavirus prevention measures, even around their relatives. People tend to feel safer around their family, but they must still take precautions, Hogan said.

Coronavirus seems to spread quickly at family events. Since the middle of July, 41 percent of coronavirus patients interviewed by contact tracers reported going to family gatherings.

“You think it’s maybe dangerous to go to a restaurant or a bar or some business,” Hogan said. “But in fact, the No. 1 thing reported is family gatherings.”

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Have a story idea? Please contact me at [email protected] with any pitches, tips or questions. Follow me on Twitter @JacobBaumgart and on Facebook @JacobBaumgartJournalist to stay up-to-date with the latest Anne Arundel County and Prince George’s County news.

This article originally appeared on the Anne Arundel Patch

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