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Mask Requirement In State Buildings To End Next Week, Hogan Says; Union Counters The Decision 'Makes No Sense'

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- Starting next week, masks will no longer be required for employees and visitors in state government buildings, Gov. Larry Hogan said on Monday.

In a news release on the change, the governor pointed to the state's improving COVID-19 metrics, with the positivity rate at 3.77% after peaking at 29.98% on Jan. 5. The change takes effect on Feb. 22.

"Given the dramatic declines in our health metrics, we are now able to take another step toward normalcy in state operations," Hogan said.

Masks will still be "strongly recommended" for unvaccinated workers and visitors, the governor said.

In a statement, the president of AFSCME Council 3, a union representing 30,000 state government employees and workers in local universities, said Hogan's decision was "based on polls and not public health."

President Patrick Moran noted 750 people are still hospitalized with COVID-19 and people are dying every day from the virus, including two union members in the last two weeks.

"The decision to rescind this masking requirement is based on little scientific evidence and makes no sense," Moran said. "Just like the Federal Government mandates people wear seatbelts, even if some people don't like them, the Governor should continue to require masking in State facilities."

Moran said the decision to drop the mandate would put frontline employees at risk, particularly those working in congregate living facilities.

"Rather than following the advice of our public health experts, the Governor is creating chaos and prolonging the pandemic by increasing the risk for frontline heroes," he said.

Last week, Hogan called on the Maryland State Board of Education to drop its mask mandate, also citing the improving metrics in the state after the Omicron variant led to a surge in cases and hospitalizations.

"A growing number of medical professionals, parents, and bipartisan state officials throughout the nation are calling for an end to school mask requirements," Hogan wrote in a letter to board president Clarence Crawford. "In light of dramatic improvements to our health metrics and the widespread availability of vaccines, I am calling on you to take action to rescind this policy."

In response, the Board of Education noted that it reviews the need for the mask mandate at each of its monthly meetings. The panel also pointed out that there are research-based "off ramps" in place for schools to lift the mandates themselves.

Under the existing policy, schools can lift mask mandates if 80% of the county's population is vaccinated, if 80% of the school's students and staff are vaccinated or if the county's transmission rate is "low" or "moderate" for 14 consecutive days.

All but four of the state's 24 jurisdictions have a "high" rate of transmission, according to the most recent CDC data. Baltimore, Prince George's, Montgomery and Queen Anne's counites have a "substantial" rate of transmission through Sunday, Feb. 13.

According to data released Monday by the Maryland Department of Health, the statewide positivity rate is the lowest it's been in three months. There are 751 patients with COVID-19 in Maryland hospitals, well below last month's peak of nearly 3,500.

Hogan also said Monday the state is offering two hours of paid leave for government workers to get booster doses of the vaccine, which the governor said "provide critical protection against the virus and its variants."

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