GAITHERSBURG, Md. (ABC7) — As one 7 On Your Side viewer colorfully stated, watching Montgomery County's 23-minute news conference about phase-one reopening was reminiscent of a Jerry Springer episode.
The 2:30 p.m. Thursday presser took place at the Main Street Pavillion in the Kentlands neighborhood of Gaithersburg. The planned community is chock-full of businesses, many locally owned and operated.
From the moment Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) approached the podium, a crowd of protesters began booing and hurling insults at him. A blonde-haired woman held a sign behind Elrich's head that read, "FREE US PLEASE!" A man, also standing behind Elrich, wore a black-colored t-shirt with the map of Maryland on it and the hashtag "ReOpenMD."
"Booooooooooooooooooo!" the group said in unison as Elrich removed his face mask and began to speak.
"Dictator!" one man shouted.
"Uh-huh," Elrich replied, put off by the comment as others screamed names like "fascist!"
Elrich: “I promised people on Wednesday that by the end of this..."
Protester: “Open up now!”
Elrich: "I promised people on Wednesday..."
Protester: “Open up now!”
Elrich: "...that by the end of the week..."
Non-Protesting Citizen: "Be quiet so we can hear! We want to hear!"
Protester: "We are being dictated by a fascist!"
Non-Protesting Citizen: "Right, just let us hear!"
Protester: “People can’t pay their bills! They can’t feed their children!”
Taking advantage of a lull in the vocal feedback, Elrich underscored that Montgomery and Prince George's Counties account for 50 percent of Maryland's COVID cases. He noted that his longstanding reluctance to commit to a phase-one reopening date, until now, was due in part to neighboring jurisdictions.
“We wanted to make sure that we aligned with what was happening, mostly in the District of Columbia and Prince George’s County," Elrich stated.
Montgomery County was the last jurisdiction in Maryland, and across the entire DMV, to announce a re-opening date and guidelines.
Elrich — a former Montgomery County Public Schools teacher who most recently served on the county council before becoming county executive in December 2018 — went on to announce that starting at 6 a.m. Monday, June 1, Montgomery County would officially enter phase-one reopening.
"Personal services, hair salons and barbershops open for hair only, no haircuts, no manicures, none of the... no pedicures," Elrich read from a piece of paper that outlined the county's new policies.
“What!?!?!?!?" a chorus of female voices exclaimed in shock.
“Fascist! Nazi! Get out of here! Open for business!" others hollered.
It turned out that Elrich misspoke. Hair salons and barbershops will be allowed to cut hair starting Monday, but by appointment only. Manicures, pedicures, and other spa-like services, however, will remain unavailable.
“We need to remember that the only reason this county did not have the steep curve of other jurisdictions is because of the steps taken by the governor, and by the county," Elrich opined, furthering incensing the crowd of naysayers.
“That’s a lie! That’s a lie! That’s a bald-faced lie.”
“Okay. Fine," Elrich responded, shrugging off the vitriol. "Only the actions that were taken flattened the curve... And if it hadn't had been for the governor..."
Protester: “Why don’t you bail out all of those small businesses!?”
Protester: "No government workers get paychecks until we open up!"
Elrich: “So, for the people who are actually interested...”
Protester: “What if you lived on nothing!?”
Protester: “How dare you say we’re not interested! Why are we here? You work for us! Don’t you dare talk to us like that!”
Protester: “How about you forfeit your paycheck!?”
Protester: “Take their paychecks away, they’d be opening up tomorrow!”
Protester: “Fascist! Nazi!”
Elrich: “Mmmm, mmm, mmm. I can wait.”
Protester: "No! No! It's my fu**ing freedom of speech!"
Protester: "Fu** you! Once again!"
Protester: “Trump 2020 baby! That’s what this is all about!”
“They’re trying to save lives! Just listen!” pleaded a female citizen who was seemingly there to learn the reopening news but not protest county leadership.
“So, to go on with this," Elrich remarked. "I want to open up as much as everybody else. I don’t understand... I do not understand why people think anybody... I don’t understand why anybody thinks anybody wants to lockdown... There is nothing in locking down that makes anybody happy.”
“Oh, bullsh**," a male protester rebuffed.
“I don’t get to do any of the things that I want to do," Elrich responded, referring to social opportunities like dining out and attending concerts.
Protester: “Shut down bureaucrats!"
Protester: “Do you think it’s healthy to have all of these children to be stuck in their homes? What about people who have mental health issues? What about people who are committing suicide? What about domestic abuse?”
Protester: “What about important procedures at hospitals? People are dying!”
Protester: “I was at the hospital last week! It’s a ghost town! I personally know doctors who have been cut because they don’t have the money to pay them!”
“I just got off a phone call with doctors today. Some of the hospitals are actually near capacity," Elrich shared without naming any specific hospitals.
Elrich then turned to his left, appearing to take a suggestion from one of his aides, and then introduced Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles.
“So, you guys have heard what we’re going to do to open. It starts on Monday morning, and I’m going to turn it over to Dr. Gayles and he can talk about this from a medical perspective.”
"Oh, God. Here comes [inaudible]," a female protester stated as Dr. Gayles approached the podium to a raucous roar of boos.
“Good afternoon to the residents of Montgomery County, to those of you at home. It’s always a pleasure and an opportunity to speak with you all, Gayles stated, noting that the county has made “tremendous progress” over the last 10 weeks since it first shut down.
“Someone brought up the question of nursing homes," Dr. Gayles stated a few minutes later. "When we look at nursing home cases, they make up approximately 10 percent of our overall cases, which actually... which actually..."
Protester: “It’s 70 percent of the deaths in the county!”
Protester: "That's right! That's right!"
Dr. Gayles: “Nursing home cases make up 10 percent of the total cases in Montgomery County.”
Protester: “You are full of it!”
Protester: "Look at your own website!"
Protester: “Show us your science!”
Dr. Gayles: “As I said, 10 percent of the cases in Montgomery County are related to nursing homes and longterm care facilities. When we look at COVID-related fatalities, yes, we do see a significantly higher percentage related to nursing homes."
Protester: "How much!?"
Protester: "Is it 60 to 70 percent!? We need you to use that number! We need that number!"
Protester: "Yeah! What is it!?"
Protester: "You answer for us! We pay your salary!"
Dr. Gayles: "As I've stated... We have implemented numerous strategies to assist our nursing homes with local action teams, state action teams, and as of this week, the National Guard implemented service working with the state to deliver test kits to nursing homes to test their residents and staff members."
Protester: "Why do you have special metrics!? What makes your metrics special!?"
Dr. Gayles: “If you all have any other questions related to this, we’ll be happy to address those at the conclusion of the press conference. Thank you. Thank you for your patience. And thank you for continuing to implement strategies to keep safer and stay at home. Thank you."
Protester: “We’re not patient!”
Protester: "Go to hell! Go to hell!"
After Dr. Gayles retreated from the microphone, the county's communications team opened the floor to questions from journalists. Protesters told reporters not to lob "softballs" at county leadership.
“Okay. Here we go. Press questions. Welcome to Kentlands by the way," a reporter with Fox 5 stated to Elrich.
“Been here before," Elrich replied with a slight grin.
“Yesterday when we spoke, you resisted, repeatedly, naming a date. Now you have," the Fox 5 reporter stated. "I was at the news conference with Gov. Hogan last night at five o’clock when he unveiled the CDC numbers and showed the 14.6 percent infection rate in this county. So, what changed between yesterday and today? This seems like a dramatic shift from your position from just yesterday?”
“Well, it’s really interesting because you apparently don’t listen very well," Elrich fired back at the FOX 5 reporter as people in the crowd reacted to the verbal sparks. "I think you were in the press conference with me on Wednesday. And I said we would do another press conference this week to announce what happened, and I said, quite plainly, that I wanted to wait to see what the governor was announcing, and what D.C. was doing, so if there were things the governor was announcing... we would incorporate it rather than do an announcement on one day of what we were going to do, and change it two days later.”
Elrich proceeded to express dissatisfaction with Gov. Hogan for allegedly not providing counties, including Montgomery, with advanced warning of state directives.
"He never shared anything with us. Ever. Never talked with us about what he was going to do... No county — republican or democrat — is part of his team that's working on a recovery-opening strategy," Elrich remarked. “We have repeatedly asked for information and we weren’t getting it. So, we waited for the press conference, we got the information, and his stuff was actually pretty basic. I had no problem with what he said. There were a couple of things we’re not going to do, yet, but I thought it was basically okay.”
Some people in the crowd took Elrich to task for not yet allowing indoor services at houses of worship. Others criticized him for not opening pools, with social distancing requirements in place.
“Pastors aren’t doctors," Elrich said with a look of frustration on his face.
“Freedom of religion! Freedom of religion! Freedom of religion!” protesters began to chant in return.
“Give me a second. You’ve been yelling the whole time," a man who identified himself as a small business owner said to a female protester as he attempted to ask Elrich a direct question. "I have four businesses. I’m concerned. Different things, fitness, restaurant... You’re in phase one, right? Appreciate it. That’s awesome. How do we get to phase two? And what metrics do we need to get there?”
Elrich responded saying "downward trends" are a good start, but he would also like to see an acute care hospital open for added bed capacity.
"Do you have an idea of what will be included in phase two because I have seen nothing," the businessman followed up. "That would help me as a small business owner. If I have a restaurant, it can be 50 percent occupancy. If I have a fitness club, am I going to be able to have my members... I have no idea."
As Elrich turned the microphone back over to Dr. Gayles, a protester standing behind the podium howled, “Excuse me! The constitution has no phases!”
"Are you giving up your salary for small business owners?" a different protester asked Dr. Gayles who appeared to be peeved by the relentless heckling.
Dr. Gayles answered the small business owner's question in generalities but shared no specifics on phase-two capacity limits.
“I have a question," a protester shouted. "Why are abortion clinics open but you can’t go to church?”
“I can’t hear you," Elrich replied.
Now at the 21-minute mark of the tense and highly-awkward press conference, questions aimed at Elrich were flying from all directions.
Protester: “We haven’t gotten a response from your office because your office emails me and says they’re too busy to respond to me!”
Elrich: “They’re still processing the applications."
Protester: “They’re too busy after six weeks to respond to me!?”
Elrich: “They still have to evaluate all of the applications. We put out $25 million for small businesses. About $20 million of the $25 [million] has been put out. The other $5 million is yet to be put out, and will probably be put out after the council probably has to revisit some of the guidelines."
Elrich's handlers guided him away from the microphone. He then chatted with his communications team, Montgomery County Councilmember Craig Rice (D-District 2), an assistant police chief, and a few members of the community before departing the Kentlands.
Protester: "Don't leave! You have to answer to your people!"
Crowd: “Recall! Recall! Recall! Recall! Recall! Recall! Recall! Recall! Recall! Recall! Recall! Recall! Recall! Recall!"
Protester: “I’ve been an employer since 1978 in this county and this is what you treat us like!”
According to law enforcement sources, Elrich's security detail contacted Montgomery County Police around 2:35 p.m. and requested that officers respond to the press conference in case things took a violent turn.
"It's coming over as a miscellaneous," a dispatcher stated over the Gaithersburg District police radio channel. "301 Main Street. 301 Main Street. In front of the Main Street Pavillion. Joe would like to be seen, advising he is on the security detail for the county executive. Would like uniform officers to standby during the press conference."
A few minutes into the press conference, a black-colored police SUV pulled up and parked on Main Street, directly behind Elrich and the podium. A number of officers were later seen milling about while the presser carried on.
"Security 518. Be advised we've cleared the county executive," a member of Elrich's security detail radioed at 3:19 p.m.
RELATED: Elrich criticizes Hogan for lack of verbal support, Hogan opines Montgomery should re-open
The following businesses and services must remain closed:
According to the Maryland Department of Health, the COVID positivity rate has decreased by more than 50 percent from 32.64 percent on April 7 to 15.84 percent on May 27. Thanks to a newly-signed contract with Rockville-based AdvaGenix, more than 8,000 residents and workers in Montgomery County are now being tested each week. By June 8, testing will increase to at least 20,000 people per week, far exceeding the county's goal of testing five percent of the population every month.