Should MoCo Reopen? Part Two

By Adam Pagnucco.

Montgomery County’s COVID-19 dashboard is a great resource for judging the county’s progress in its efforts to control the coronavirus. Unfortunately, it’s not so great at enabling comparison with other jurisdictions, most of whom don’t release data at that level of detail. Inter-jurisdictional comparison is relevant because both public health and economic competitiveness cross state and county lines. Also, if local leaders facing similar circumstances make different decisions, that’s important for voters to know.

Johns Hopkins University hosts data on COVID cases and deaths relative to population by county on its website. On those two measures, here is how MoCo compares to other large jurisdictions in the region as of 9/6/20.

MoCo is about average for the region in terms of cases per capita. It is above average on deaths per capita. Prince George’s County has been hardest hit in terms of cases and, along with D.C., on deaths.

The data above illustrates the historical impact of COVID-19 but it’s less helpful in understanding recent trends. The table below shows cases in the two most-recent 7 day periods (8/24-8/30 and 8/31-9/6) relative to population.

During the 8/24-8/30 period, MoCo had the lowest cases per capita of any large jurisdiction in the region. During the following week (8/31-9/6), MoCo was below the regional average and about equal to Baltimore City, Howard, Fairfax and Loudoun. It’s worth noting that MoCo’s cases per capita increased over the two weeks.

MoCo is one of just four jurisdictions in Maryland (along with Baltimore City and Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties) that is not reopening in line with the state’s phase 3. MoCo’s cases per capita in the most recent week are roughly equal to or lower than Howard, which is proceeding to stage 3, and most of Northern Virginia, which has been operating under Virginia’s phase 3 (which is less restrictive than Maryland’s) since July 1.

Here’s the bottom line, folks: if reopening is a data driven decision, then the facts do not point exclusively in one direction. As seen here and in Part One, supporters and opponents of reopening can each point to data that reinforces their respective points of view. Anyone who says that the data is completely with them is mistaken.

That said, each side bears a burden in making their argument.

County Executive Marc Elrich must explain why he continues to resist reopening despite improvement in the majority of the county’s tracked measures. He must also explain why some jurisdictions with similar or higher recent COVID case rates have proceeded to greater economic liberalization than MoCo, especially in Virginia.

The critics have a different problem. Elrich has been very consistent in saying that public health is his top priority. In making that judgment, he is far from alone among MoCo residents. Critics have to acknowledge that further reopening creates greater risk. They must also explain why public health should not be considered the county’s sole top priority, or at the very least why concessions on that issue are justified by economic recovery.