ANNAPOLIS — Public schools across Maryland will be closed and access to government buildings will be severely restricted as part of a wide-ranging set of orders issued Thursday by Gov. Larry Hogan in an effort to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
The two-term Republican announced the moves, which could also necessitate the abbreviation of the 90-day General Assembly session, as the state reports its first case in which a patient contracted the virus through community contact rather than foreign travel.
“For Marylanders, the actions that I have announced here today will be disruptive to your everyday lives and they may sound extreme and they may sound frightening, but they could be the difference in saving lives and helping keep people safe,” said Hogan.
Maryland schools will close on a statewide basis beginning when classes end on Friday and running at least through March 27. While the order applies only to public schools, Hogan said he hopes private schools will follow suit.
“This was a decision by the state superintendent of schools,” Hogan said. “We brought it up to the entire team of doctors and our entire management team of state government and they unanimously agreed with her decision.
“We’d rather be out in the forefront of making decisions quickly rather than be the last one to make it happen,” said Hogan.
Hogan said health officials said not taking the action and waiting a week “would be a critical mistake.”
State Schools Superintendent Karen Salmon ordered school officials to use scheduled spring breaks to help make up missed classes assuming schools resume as currently expected.
Hogan announced that Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford will assume the management of day-to-day state government operations so that he can personally oversee efforts to respond to the virus.
Hogan also announced:
- He is prohibiting any gatherings of 250 people or more including social, religious, community and sporting events across the state.
- Non-essential state employees and those who can work from home will be required to do so.
- Hogan activated the Maryland National Guard to assist in critical functions.
- Access to state buildings, including the State House, by the public will be restricted until further notice.
- All senior activity centers are closed until the end of the state of emergency.
- The cruise ship terminal in Baltimore has been closed and no passengers nor crew will be allowed to disembark with the exception of two ships on the way to port now. Passengers on those vessels will have be screened.
- All expiration dates on state licenses and registrations are extended until 30 days following the end of the state of emergency.
- All hospitals around the state are ordered to adopt more restrictive visitor policies.
- All state prisons will suspend visits.
Health officials who backed the plans praised Hogan’s orders bold and decisive.
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.
On Thursday, Hogan announced the first case of the virus to be transmitted through community contact. Prior to that, the dozen cases documented in the state were related to international travel.
“The circumstances of this case indicate that we are entering a new phase of this crisis in our state. We should expect the number of cases to dramatically an rapidly rise.”
But even as Hogan declared an end to public gatherings and restricted access to state government buildings, legislative leaders said they plan to press on with the 2020 session for as long as possible.
House Speaker Adrienne Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson Thursday morning were optimistic that they could complete the final 26 days of the session.
They did, however, announce measures to limit exposure, including ending tours and receptions and moving next week to hearings with sponsors only rather than in-person public testimony. Committee meetings, hearings and floor sessions remain open to the public.
Even so, there were clear efforts to prioritize bills keeping in preparation for the need to end the session before April. The session has not been cut short since 1861.
After Hogan’s announcement, Ferguson said Thursday that he and Jones would meet with their leadership teams and top Republicans “but doing it in a way that is safe and is protecting public health.”
The General Assembly is required to pass a budget before adjourning. Both chambers have ironed out their versions of the spending plan, which usually then requires a final negotiation between House and Senate leaders.
Lawmakers may also want to finalize the Kirwan Commission education plan, though it is unclear if there will be time, or the necessity, to finalize a package of bills meant to offset some of the costs.
Thursday night, Ferguson and Jones announced that the House and Senate plan to work through the weekend with sessions on Saturday and a rare Sunday session. The goal is to work through as much legislation as possible, including passage of a budget.
That does not mean session will necessarily end next week rather than on April 6 as scheduled.
The General Assembly has not ended early since 1861.
A spokesman for Ferguson said the first-year Senate president would like to push through until the scheduled end of the 90-day session.
A spokeswoman for Jones said they are “preparing for the worst but hoping for the best” and that the speaker believes the General Assembly “will be here until close to the end if not the end.”
The House and Senate are moving next week to sponsor only bill hearings. The public cannot testify in person but may submit written testimony through their legislators.