Leaders of some of Maryland’s largest counties are pressuring Gov. Larry Hogan to quickly reimpose some restrictions in response to what they said are concerning trends and rising cases of COVID-19 in the state.
An increase in cases since July 4 as well as what public health officers from five of the state’s largest jurisdictions say is a troubling spike in an early indicator have some fearful that the state is heading toward another surge in cases, hospitalizations and potentially deaths. Those officials want Hogan to impose additional restrictions ranging from quarantine orders when traveling from hot spot states to reimposing restrictions on indoor dining.
“If we don’t act and take actions now we’ll see a continued rise in cases and we’ll see a steep rise in cases,” said Anne Arundel County Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman. “We saw that in the beginning of this pandemic in our county, in our state and we certainly saw that in other states that have been experiencing spikes.”
Kalyanaraman was one of five health officers from Baltimore and from Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties to call for increased restrictions Monday in a joint request to Maryland Deputy Health Secretary Fran Phillips.
County leaders, however appear hesitant to act on their own despite having the ability under Hogan’s reopening plan to have stronger restrictions in place.
“When one county, a small county like Anne Arundel County, acts independently, the impact is less effective because people cross borders constantly and in fact most of our residents commute in or out of our county to work,” said Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, a Democrat. “It’s important to try to move as a group.”
Pittman said he is hopeful Hogan will announce increased restrictions on Wednesday, saying that the governor typically holds a news conference on that day of the week, but would consider additional restrictions on his own if no statewide measures are announced. As of Tuesday afternoon Hogan had not announced any news conferences.
Hogan has said previously that counties have the ability to have stricter rules in place if they feel it is necessary.
“The governor often refers to local flexibility in his recovery plan,” said Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat. “But the truth is for local governments, even though it might be flexible, it’s also uneven and it’s ineffective.”
Olszewski Tuesday announced that he will require the use of face coverings or masks be used by persons 2-years-old and older in all indoor areas including churches and recreation centers starting Thursday at 9 a.m. The order is stronger than Hogan’s, which merely requires them inside retailers.
He also called on residents and visitors to keep masks with them at all times and strongly suggested using them outside when social distancing is not possible. Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties have made the use of masks outside mandatory in certain situations.
Olszewski stopped short of ending indoor dining in his county. He said restaurants were excluded because of the nature of the business even though he said they are inherently risky and make spreading of the virus easier.
He and other leaders called on Hogan to do so, saying a more statewide and consistent approach is needed.
“The public health benefit of closing indoor dining in Baltimore County is limited so long as neighboring jurisdictions remain open,” Olszewski said. “If a resident cannot eat indoors here they will very likely travel somewhere else to do so.”
On Wednesday, Maryland reported 860 new cases of the virus. It was the third day in four where the state posted 800 or more cases, including 925 cases reported on Sunday — the largest number since May 30. The state has reported 700 or more cases in six of the last eight days even as other key metrics including hospitalizations, positivity rates and deaths have all remained relatively low and stable.
Hogan has repeatedly touted the sub-5% positivity rate but has not lifted additional restrictions in more than a month.
“Well, we’ve always said Stage Two would be the longest stage of the recovery, and that continues to be the case,” said Michael Ricci, a Hogan spokesman.
On Tuesday, however, Maryland was added to a list of 31 states whose residents must quarantine for 14 days if traveling to Connecticut, New Jersey and New York.
One troubling indicator not often talked about is an increase in the transmission rate of the virus — the number of people infected by one person who is diagnosed with the disease. A transmission rate below one is considered good and means that the virus is not able to sustain itself.
For several weeks that rate was below one statewide as well in some larger counties such as Anne Arundel. That number is now trending up in Maryland and in some counties since June 19 following Hogan’s easing of restrictions on indoor dining and other businesses considered to be more at risk for transmission of COVID-19.
Since then, a number of businesses — mostly bars and restaurants — around the state have closed around the state after employees tested positive.
“Our numbers have indeed held steady over the course of July, but you’ve heard the governor and state health officials repeatedly express concern about the rise in the positivity rate among people in their 20s and 30s,” said Ricci. “We have connected this trend partly to non-compliance with health orders at bars and restaurants, and we continue to urge local leaders to use their authority to close and sanction unsafe facilities. When we see a concerning trend, we should follow the data and address it immediately.”
Ricci did not respond to specific questions about the rate of transmission or if that was a metric that warranted additional concern.
The calls have led some Republicans in the state to cry politics — as it is mostly counties led by Democrats calling for Hogan to impose more restrictions.
“Local health officers of Maryland’s Power 5 Counties should turn to their own elected leaders to make unpopular decisions. Calling on the governor to do your dirty work is weak. Responsible businesses don’t need renewed statewide mandates to further restrict them from operating,” Sen. Steve Hershey, R-Upper Shore and Senate Minority Whip, wrote in a message on Twitter.
Others say those counties have no business imposing restrictions on rural counties, which are relatively unaffected.
Del. Kathy Szeliga, R-Baltimore and Harford counties and House Minority Whip, wrote in a post on Facebook that Olszewski “should not be telling Garrett Co and Cecil Co what to do. We have 23 counties plus the City. Each has its own challenges, and many are not seeing spikes. Western MD, Southern MD, and the Eastern Shore should not take orders from Baltimore Co.”
Hogan has called on local governments to be more proactive in enforcing the requirements including fining repeat offenders or suspending or stripping them of their licenses.
County leaders, including Pittman, say they are working to educate their business owners on the law but warn fines could be coming.
Sean Naron, a spokesman for Olszewski, said Baltimore County had issued no citations related to mask use. He did not respond to questions about enforcement against bars and restaurants that violated orders issued by the state, including capacity limits and requiring bar patrons be seated and not standing in order to maintain social distance requirements.
Asked about how the county would enforce Olszewski’s new orders, Naron said: “The county will lead with education like with all public health efforts. However, like any other code violation, repeated violation could result in a citation of no more than $500.”