Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. announced he will ease restrictions in his jurisdiction put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Olszewski’s announcement came an hour before the Baltimore County Council took up a controversial 45-day extension of the county’s state of emergency. Opponents said denying the extension would allow the county to move more quickly into the first stage of a plan to reopen the state and end constitutional violations that include limiting religious gatherings.
The extension, approved in a 6-1 vote by the council, continues the state of emergency in the county, a move county officials said was needed to allow for flexibility in procurement and governing during the pandemic. Denying the extension would have had little effect on many restrictions in place in the the county.
“It’s not that we’re saying this is a blanket statement of shutdown. It just will allow us to continue do the things we’re doing to get back to a degree of opening the government, the community in a responsible way, using data,” said Baltimore County Administrative Officer Stacy Rodgers.
Gov. Larry Hogan’s executive orders allow for local jurisdictions to slow the rate at which a county reopens but does not allow them to move faster than the state.
On Thursday, a week after he announced Baltimore County would not participate fully in Hogan’s phase one plan, Olszewski said he would ease additional restrictions.
Starting at 9 a.m. Friday, retail establishments opened under Gov. Larry Hogan’s phase one plan will be allowed to open in the county. Also, barbers and salons will be allowed to open.
In each case, those businesses will be limited to 10 people, including employees, inside the stores or salons. Masks and social distancing will be required. In the case of salons and barbers, operators will be required to disinfect after each customer.
Not all on the Baltimore County Council are happy about the remaining restrictions or the continuation of Olszewski’s state of emergency.
Councilman Todd Crandell, a Dundalk Republican and the lone dissenting vote, said residents of the county were once willing to accept the restrictions but are now growing frustrated and impatient with the slow reopening, which he called unconstitutional because it limits First Amendment rights, including church services.
“Freedom of assembly, freedom to worship as you please is being violated and will continue to be violated until we get rid of this state of emergency and revert back to the full course of what the governor has said,” Crandell said.
He praised Olszewski’s decision to ease more restrictions but said it did not go far enough.
“We only got a partial victory today for constitutional rights with the county executive’s announcement,” he said. “I’m not going to stand aside and let a county executive play games with people’s freedoms and play political games with people’s livelihoods, which is what is happening now.”
Crandell sponsored a separate resolution that would have ended the state of emergency in the county. That measure failed when no other council member would second it.
The debate among the seven-member legislative panel Thursday sometimes turned heated and personal.
Councilman Tom Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat, said not extending the state of emergency wouldn’t yield the results Crandell and advocates for reopening faster would want.
“The state of emergency, if we in Baltimore County just suddenly stopped the state of emergency, we’re not going out and fully reopening. We couldn’t anyway under the state of Maryland guidance from Gov. Larry Hogan,” said Quirk before directing his comments at Crandell. “For you to somehow pretend you’re some major constitutional scholar is a little repulsive.”
Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, attempted to find a compromise position. He offered an amendment that would have reduced the 45-day extension to just 14 days rather than an extension that would end in July.
“What I am hearing is that it’s that July date that’s triggering the frustration,” said Marks. “Why can’t we do two weeks? Why that 45 days?”
Marks argued that shorter durations would “force greater consultation between the executive and legislative branches.”
Councilman Julian Jones, a Democrat who represents parts of Reisterstown, Woodlawn and Randallstown, countered that two weeks was too short a time span.
“Why not extend it 45 days if we know all these things are going on?” Jones asked. “This crisis is not going to be over in two weeks.”
Maryland moved into phase one of the governor’s plan to reopen a week ago.
Under that plan, the governor lifted a “stay-at-home order” and replaced it with a “safer-at-home” advisory. Retail stores can open to 50% capacity, with masking and distancing measures. Manufacturing will also be allowed to resume, with measures in place to protect workers.
Personal services such as barber shops will be able to reopen at 50% of capacity, and religious services can resume, with outdoor services strongly encouraged.
Not eased were requirements for wearing masks in stores and other retail establishments and on public transportation. Hogan said those practices must remain and called on the public to continue to observe social distancing measures as well as to frequently wash hands and disinfect high-touch surfaces.
The plan does not require counties to move into phase one, thus allowing a patchwork of policies across the state. Most of the state’s rural counties opted to move fully into phase one.
Baltimore County, the state’s third largest jurisdiction, opted to partially move into phase one by allowing curbside-only retail pickup and to reopen manufacturing.
“Those decisions, which we had about 24 hours to determine in the wake of Governor Hogan’s announcements, were made in the best interests of public health,” said Olszewski.
Criticism of Olszewski’s slower reopening pace has been mounting, and a protest is planned for Friday in Towson.
And, as in other jurisdictions, restaurateurs are concerned that continued restrictions on table service will ultimately spell doom for their livelihoods.
And while resuming even limited or outdoor table service is not contemplated until phase two of the state plan, some would like to speed that up.
“We are in discussions on how we can open up seating, outdoor seating, for restaurants,” said Rodgers.
Olszewski said the easing of restrictions announced Thursday was made possible by an increase in testing, including screening at the State Fairgrounds in Timonium that will no longer require appointments or even that patients have symptoms of the virus. The county is also in the process of beefing up its contact tracing, the county executive said.
“We do not operate in a vacuum,” said Olszewski, a Democrat. “The governor’s orders have created a patchwork of rules and now Baltimore County businesses face restrictions that no longer apply to some of their competitors nearby, some just a few minutes away. What’s more, we know that our residents are traveling to businesses in other counties while our establishments remain closed. That not only puts our small businesses at a competitive disadvantage, it also has the unfortunate impact of limiting the public health benefits our own restrictions have.”