After a marathon meeting that included over two hours of public comment and stretched past 1 a.m. Friday, Frederick County’s Board of Health voted to institute a local mask mandate.
Under the new directive — set to take effect at 5 p.m. on Friday — everyone five years and older will be required to wear a face covering in public indoor spaces where they are unable to stay at least six feet away from people who are not members of their household. Exceptions included, among others, those experiencing medical conditions or disabilities that make it unsafe to wear a mask, people eating and drinking and those swimming or engaging in other physical activities where wearing a mask would pose a safety risk.
The action faced criticism from the county council’s three Republican members, two of whom noted it was not accompanied by defined enforcement mechanisms. But the regulation’s supporters — like County Executive Jan Gardner, who called Thursday’s emergency health board meeting — said unprecedented levels of virus transmission in the community necessitated action.
“We are really projected to see a significant spread of COVID like we have never seen before,” she said. “I believe as leaders in this community it is our responsibility to do what we can to protect public health and welfare. We raise our right hand to do that.”
“It’s not going to be perfect,” she continued, “but we are in a place where we have to take bold action.”
Earlier Thursday evening, Gardner declared a state of emergency in the county — a step that put the jurisdiction’s emergency plans in place and opened it up to requesting additional assistance and funding, she said during the health board meeting. It would not change day-to-day operations within the county government by much, she said.
Frederick County is just the latest jurisdiction to order mask wearing in public indoor settings. Anne Arundel County’s mandate will also be starting Friday, joining previously passed directives in Baltimore City, as well as Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
At earlier meetings, the local health board — which is composed of Gardner, county health officer Dr. Barbara Brookmyer and the county council’s seven members — declined to pass any mask requirements because of concerns over how they would be implemented.
The county had a mask mandate last year, following an executive order from Gov. Larry Hogan, and existing staff members and contracted security personnel were charged with enforcing it. At times, noncompliant residents were argumentative and combative, which put county employees at risk and caused the contractors to quit, Gardner told The Frederick News-Post last month.
Instead of voting on a mask mandate during their last meeting, on Nov. 23, health board members instead opted to issue a statement advising members of the public to don a face covering. But the state of the virus in the county is much different now than it was back then, Gardner said.
Frederick County logged a record 646 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday and had a positivity rate of 23.58 percent — a number that towered over where levels stood on Nov. 23, at 6.45 percent. In the coming weeks, the county is expected to add 1,400 or 1,500 more cases every day, Gardner said.
“Will some people not want to comply [with the mask mandate]? Sure,” Gardner said. Still, “I think we have to do a mask mandate or mask requirements and have it enforced by businesses or organizations and by self-compliance to as much as we possibly can do and reserve the right to do compliance, should we find a situation where we need to do that.”
This explanation was not satisfactory to Councilman Phil Dacey, who was especially vocal in his criticism of the decision to pass a policy without a way to enforce it. He worried doing so would put business owners in a tough spot when dealing with customers who refused to wear a mask.
“This looks political, the way we’re doing this, because we’re trying to pass something that says you have to wear a mask, but in reality, you don’t," he said, "because there's no consequences."
Councilman Steve McKay also called out the policy’s lack of enforcement mechanism, saying the directive was more of a recommendation than a mandate without any sort of penalty attached. He additionally voiced alarm over the quick turnaround in the board’s decision — the emergency meeting was announced on Tuesday, two days before it took place.
Still, McKay and Dacey both said they would be unlikely to support a mandate even if it did come with enforcement mechanisms. McKay and Blue both said they would rather see the health board spend more time considering how to get more people vaccinated.
The health board, however, received support from Frederick Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kathy Weishaar for passing a mandate — a measure she hoped would help the health system as it weathers tremendous stress on its capacity, resources and staff members. As of Thursday evening, the hospital was caring for a record number of 82 coronavirus patients, she said.
Of this number, 70 percent were unvaccinated. In the intensive care unit, more than 90 percent of COVID-19 patients were unvaccinated. At times, Weishaar said this number has been 100 percent.
In response to a question from McKay about steps Frederick Health is taking to boost the capacity of its intensive care unit, Weishaar said the health care system’s current problem lies more along the lines of staffing than space limitations. Some clinical employees have left the health field entirely due to burnout, while others have taken early retirements or pursued jobs that are more lucrative, Weishaar said.
“Last time, we had two ICUs running with a third that was sort of ‘in the wings,’ if you will, prepared to open if needed,” said Weishaar, who is also the vice president of medical affairs at Frederick Health. “This time, we don’t have the nurses to run it.”
Weishaar also shared that the health system’s emergency department and urgent care centers are currently overwhelmed by people who are seeking COVID-19 tests. This is “clogging the system and bogging us down and limiting our ability to provide the resources to the folks that really, really need it,” she said.
“Just for some perspective, we’ve had patients wait over 11 hours to be seen in our ER,” Weishaar said. They are treated and released at that point, but “it’s a real issue and it’s a significant concern for us.”
She also asked the health board to pass limits on public gatherings. Members had planned to discuss this topic, as well, but it was already past 1 a.m. by the time they voted to pass a mask mandate.
They agreed to meet again soon and convene regularly in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, Gardner said it was important for people to understand that the larger the crowd they’re in, the more risk they have for catching COVID-19.
“Certainly all the immunocompromised people, older people, unvaccinated people should really try to avoid a crowded situation — really everyone right now because of the transmission rates,” she said.