In its first meeting in years, the Frederick County Board of Health met late into the night Thursday before voting to impose further restrictions to help control the rampant spread of the novel coronavirus.
The restrictions, which go into effect at 5 p.m. Friday, mandate that residents wear masks in all indoor public spaces as well as outdoor public spaces when physical distancing can't be maintained with non-family members in Frederick County and limit all gatherings in residences and businesses to no more than 25 people.
Any violators of the restrictions outlined in Board of Health Regulation 01-2020 will be subject to a fine. A first-time offense would result in a fine of $250. A second offense would carry a fine of $375, while third and subsequent offenses would result in a fine of $500.
The regulation can be enforced by any county division or department or a designee. Citations can be written by the County Health Officer, Dr. Barbara Brookmyer, or a designee.
The 7-1 vote to implement further restrictions followed a discussion by the county health board that was at times contentious and stretched more than four hours. Some small amendments were required before it finally passed around 11:25 p.m.
The only board member to oppose the measure was County Councilman Phil Dacey, who supported parts of the regulation, but not all of it. He worried that enforcing it would require some businesses to close.
"Really, I think it's a disservice to the people of Frederick County that we are passing this in the dead of night without public comment," Dacey said right before the vote was taken.
The county Board of Health passed the more restrictive measures on a day that saw more than 150,000 new COVID-19 infections reported across the U.S.
Both Maryland and Frederick County saw one of their largest daily increases in cases, with 1,477 infections reported across the state and 55 in the county. The county surpassed a 5 percent positivity rate for the first time since June 18.
"The goal is to get people to comply [with the regulation] rather than to be heavy-handed [with enforcement]," County Executive Jan Gardner said.
Gardner sits on the county's Board of Health, along with Brookmyer and the members of the County Council.
The state calls for each county's Board of Health to meet twice a year, but it's unclear the last time the Frederick County Board of Health had actually convened. Brookmyer said it had been a number of years, and that she planned on getting in the habit of convening the board in May and October.
The regulation limits indoor capacity for events held at bars, breweries, distilleries, public venues and several businesses in the county to 25 percent capacity or 25 people, whichever is less. Wedding venues will be restricted in the same way, beginning at 9 a.m. on Nov. 30.
Restaurant capacity remains at 50 percent, as those activities are not considered social gatherings, said Vivian Laxton, Gardner's communications director.
For religious facilities, that capacity is capped at 50 percent. Fitness centers, health clubs and other similar businesses are capped at 25 percent.
"The goal is always to be a step ahead [of the virus]," said Tom Kleinhanzl, the President and CEO at Frederick Health Hospital.
The hospital was treating 18 coronavirus patients, as of Wednesday, including two in intensive care.
Kleinhanzl said Frederick Health Hospital was well positioned to handle a surge in COVID-19 patients, stating it was 60 beds away from possibly having to postpone elective surgeries and 100 beds away from cancelling them.
But he also warned that this fall virus surge is likely "to get much worse before it gets better."
On a recent hike in the county, Brookmyer noted that many people she passed were not wearing masks and didn't bother to turn their heads.
"Fortunately, I can hold my breath for a really long time," she said.
Dacey opposed passing the regulation because he felt the public had not had time to review or speak on the matter.
However, Gardner pushed back, saying that she enacts executive orders with minimal public input, and there was no time for inaction with the surging coronavirus.
"We need to stay a step ahead [of the virus] to protect public health and to protect our economy," Gardner said.
The county regulation was passed two days after Gov. Larry Hogan restricted capacity at Maryland restaurants and bars to 50 percent. They had been operating at 75 percent in the county for more than a month and almost two months in other parts of the state.
News-Post staff writer Steve Bohnel contributed to this report.