The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration will move to an all-appointment schedule in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The announcement Wednesday came as Gov. Larry Hogan warned residents to stay calm but prepare for massive disruptions in normal daily routines.
Hogan said the MVA would “immediately begin moving to an all-appointments system for all transactions in order to eliminate walk-ins and reduce foot traffic and keep crowds to a minimum.”
In addition to the changes at MVA, Hogan said, the state is also limiting visits to inmates in state prison infirmaries and ordering employees who have flu-like symptoms to remain at home.
Meanwhile, the governor expressed frustration about the lack of information on 12 Marylanders who were aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship. Those passengers are being quarantined after cases were confirmed on that ship. None of the Maryland residents have tested positive for the virus or have shown symptoms.
Those passengers are expected to be transferred to military bases in Texas and Georgia. Hogan said Maryland residents should be tested and, if found not to be sick, returned to the state as quickly as possible.
“Unfortunately, the information from the federal government has not been as forthcoming,” Hogan said. “We’ve been somewhat frustrated by that.”
Hogan said in many cases the state has no information in the identities of the passengers or if the federal government has communicated with family members. He said the state also has not been told which military bases will house the Maryland passengers.
Hogan declared a state of emergency on March 5 after the first three cases of COVID-19 were reported in Maryland in Montgomery County.
Since then, the state has documented 12 in-state cases. One of the new cases, a Montana woman in her 70s who is visiting Anne Arundel County, was confirmed Wednesday to have the virus.
COVID-19 is from a family of coronaviruses that include severe acute respiratory syndrome — SARS – and Middle East respiratory syndrome. The virus takes its name from the spikes that appear on the surface of its cells that resemble crowns.
Symptoms of COVID-19 can include fever, cough and breathing trouble. Most people who catch the virus develop only mild symptoms. But some people, usually those with other medical complications, develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia, which can be fatal.
The elderly and those with compromised immune systems or underlying health issues are particularly at risk. Hogan, speaking Wednesday, warned that others should not underestimate the virus.
“Marylanders should be taking this pandemic seriously,” said Hogan. He added that there “maybe significant disruption to your everyday lives for a period of time.”
The World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 virus a pandemic and expressed concerns about efforts to contain the spread.
“Remain calm but stay informed,” said Hogan.
Hogan’s announcement did not include any call for an end to large gatherings. He said those decisions can be made at the local level.
One possible disruption could be with the upcoming election on April 28.
“I know that the state Board of Elections, which is an independent body, did notify one of my staff members today that they were considering some adjustments on the election on April 4 but quite frankly I’m not up to speed on that. It wasn’t at the top of my priority list.”
Senate President Bill Ferguson told members of the Senate Finance Committee that he has talked to state board of elections officials “related to the upcoming primary and general” election.
Nikki Charlson, deputy administrator for the state board, declined to elaborate on Hogan’s remarks.
“The Maryland State Board of Elections is working closely with federal and state health agencies to monitor developments related to COVID-19. We appreciate that this is an evolving situation and are taking every appropriate step to deliver a safe and secure election for Maryland voters and election workers. SBE reminds voters who prefer to vote from home that they can request an absentee ballot.”
Voters can request an absentee ballot online. So far, the board has received about 32,000 requests. Charlson could not offer comparisons to past elections but said during the week of March 2 the board received over 1,300 requests per day on average, compared to 850 per day a week previously.
The governor also doubled-down on his comments a day earlier directed at nursing homes in the state.
On Tuesday Hogan, using phrases like “effective immediately,” said that nursing homes should end all non-essential visits and make video and phone visits more widely available. He also called for an end to travel outside the country by employees at those facilities. Officials said later that the statements were meant as guidelines for best practices and were not mandates on the facilities.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Hogan repeated the calls but in tougher language.
“Today we issued the following directive, effective immediately,” Hogan said before announcing that nursing homes were to “restrict access to essential visits only. We will be prohibiting non-essential visits.”
Hogan added that the facilities would be “prohibiting all staff from any international travel” as well as actively screening anyone entering a nursing home. Individuals found to be exhibiting signs of upper respiratory illnesses or exposure to COVID-19 would be denied entry.”
A Hogan spokesman later said that the statements should be thought of “as a should rather than a must.”
Even so, some people with family in area nursing homes reported late Wednesday that those facilities had canceled all visits.