Baltimore will lift its indoor mask mandate March 1, Mayor Brandon Scott announced on Thursday, Feb. 24. Image via Charm TV Baltimore/Facebook Live.

Mayor Brandon Scott on Thursday announced he will lift Baltimore City’s indoor mask mandate on March 1, citing the city’s improving COVID-19 metrics.

The decision will also extend to city employees, Scott said during his Thursday press conference.

School officials have not made a decision regarding mask requirements in Baltimore City public schools, as local school districts are still awaiting a state legislative panel to approve the Maryland State Board of Education’s rescission of the statewide mask mandate for Maryland public schools on Tuesday.

Scott said he will talk with Baltimore City Council President Nick Mosby and Baltimore City Comptroller Bill Henry about the next steps for reopening Baltimore City Hall. He said he expect the three of them to make an announcement “within the next few weeks.”

During the press conference, Scott declined to answer what levels of COVID-19 data the city would need to see in order to move forward with reopening city hall.

Baltimore City Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa said that while Baltimore City will not require people to wear a mask indoors come March 1, she is continuing to encourage mask wearing in indoor crowded places, especially in poorly ventilated spaces.

She added that businesses will still be able to require patrons to wear a mask on their premises.

“Though we are encouraged by this improvement in our COVID-19 metrics, this is in no way an indication that the pandemic is over, rather we are entering a new phase,” Dzirasa said. “It is also not a sign that the public health protocols and measures that we have put in place to date are no longer necessary.”

Dzirasa urged people to get a COVID-19 vaccination or booster shot, if they are eligible and are not already vaccinated, to reduce the risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death for themselves and others.

She also said people should get tested for coronavirus if they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 or are exhibiting coronavirus symptoms, and quarantine at home if they test positive, to limit the virus’s spread. Older adults, immunocompromised and children under 5 years old who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated continue to be among those with the highest risk of COVID-19.

People can find a coronavirus vaccination site here and a COVID-19 testing site here.

At least 1,690 Baltimore residents are confirmed to have died from COVID-19 to date as of Thursday, according to the Maryland Department of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard. There are also 32 probable coronavirus-related deaths in Baltimore City.

Scott said the death toll would have likely been higher in Baltimore City without mask requirements and other mitigation tools for reducing the spread of coronavirus.

“We did lose far too many who are dear to us, but we know that we will continue to honor them,” he said. “And that without the efforts that we took – masking, social distancing, vaccination, the other things that we had to do – we would have lost many more. We’re going to continue to honor those that we lost by understanding and treating this pandemic with the severity that it deserves.”

Yet Scott said Baltimore is seeing a “significant decline” in its COVID-19 health metrics, allowing for the city to lift its mask mandate.

Dzirasa said a data breach at the Maryland Department of Health in December continues to limit the city health department’s ability to update its COVID-19 dashboard. But she cited data from the state health department’s COVID-19 dashboard as evidence for the city’s decision to lift the mask requirement.

According to state data, Baltimore City’s positivity rate dropped to 2.03% on Feb. 22, down from 8.72% a month ago.

The seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases decreased from 81.99 cases per 100,000 people on Jan. 22 to 18.37 cases per 100,000 people on Feb. 22.

Dzirasa acknowledged an increase in the case rates from 7.49 cases per 100,000 people on Feb. 18 to 18.37 cases per 100,000 people on Feb. 22, but she said the city believes the change is related to the Maryland health department updating its data to include older cases and reinfections.

Due to that increase, Baltimore City’s level of community transmission increased from “substantial” to “high,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) COVID Data Tracker.

But Dzirasa remained confident in the trajectory of the city’s health metrics.

“Overall, we are encouraged by the significant decline in case rates and positivity that we’ve seen in the past several weeks,” she said.

Dzirasa also noted that there were 696 patients with COVID-19 occupying beds in Baltimore hospitals on Jan. 22. As of Feb. 22, there were 161 COVID-19 patients in city hospitals.

On Feb. 22, 76.8% Baltimore residents age 5 and older had received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and 67.4% were considered fully vaccinated.

Scott said Baltimore thanked Dzirasa and the city health department for being “the guiding hand that has, knock on wood, gotten us through the worst of the pandemic.”

“There is now an even brighter light at the end of the tunnel, and hopefully we can begin to return to our new normal,” Scott said. “We are going to continue to focus on this, but make sure that we are adapting to the new world. As always we’ll continue to prioritize the health and safety of our residents.”

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Marcus Dieterle

Marcus Dieterle is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. He returned to Baltimore in 2020 after working as the deputy editor of the Cecil Whig newspaper in Elkton, Md. He can be reached at marcus@baltimorefishbowl.com...