The return of county and state officials to a convention in Ocean City later this month was seen as sign that government operations were returning to normal.
As many as 2,000 people are expected inside the Ocean City Convention Center for the annual Maryland Association of Counties convention. The event returns to an in-person format after one virtual meeting. The convention – oft-criticized as a taxpayer-funded beach junket — promises all of the policy discussions, wheeling and dealing and related after-hours parties and campaigning typically expected.
But instead of showcasing a return to normalcy, the 2021 event is taking place against the backdrop of a pandemic that, far from over, is now showing a steady uptick in COVID-19 cases.
“The demand for an in-person conference has led us to we’re going to do it in a safe and responsible way, but we want to respond to the interest there is in this event” said Michael Sanderson, executive director of the association that represents the 24 major political subdivisions in the state.
Worcester County is currently listed as an area of high coronavirus transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As such, the agency recommends the use of masks when people gather in indoor public spaces.
Neither the county nor the state have mask mandates. The association last week sent an email “strongly encouraging” mask use indoors.
Carroll County Commissioner Eric Bouchat, who opposes mask mandates, bristled over the association’s mask use advice, falsely describing it as a mandate.
“I canceled my attendance over the mask issue,” said Bouchat. “I’m wondering if it’s necessary for us to go down there if it’s so dangerous in the conference center that we have to be masked even though most people are vaccinated.”
Bouchat, who is also unvaccinated, opposes the use of masks and has called them “face diapers.” The first-term Republican also criticized the convention as a waste of public funds.
Sanderson said his organization began telling attendees and exhibitors that a range of restrictions could be in place by the time August rolled around.
Sanderson said he realizes that while some will take issue with that suggestion, others will say it doesn’t go far enough.
“We’re going to end up with some negative feedback from both ends of the spectrum,” said Sanderson. “I don’t think that there’s any way to avoid that.”
Aside from encouraged mask use, Sanderson said, some other changes were made. No children will be allowed in the convention center, and two popular networking receptions have been canceled for the year.
The MACo convention is not the first to return. Earlier this year, the National Association of Counties held a national convention in National Harbor in Prince George’s County.
The Maryland Municipal League, which represents more than 100 incorporated towns and cities in the state also its their annual summer convention in-person, also in Ocean City.
Planning for the June MML convention began in January. The situation at the time looked different and organizers initially planned for limiting attendance to about 400. Mandates — including on-site health checks, masks and social distancing — were also part of the initial menu of options, said Scott Hancock, executive director of the municipal league.
As the situation improved, mandatory temperature checks were eliminated. Masks became optional but encouraged.
“We ended up telling people, ‘We ask that you mask,'” said Hancock. “We felt like saying ‘highly recommend’ was a nice way of saying it’s not really necessary.”
Hancock said the Ocean City convention for municipalities drew about one-third the attendance of a typical year.
Other events held in conjunction with the MACo convention but not controlled by organizers will also return.
In years past, there was concern about the occasional public official who over-indulged and generated a conference-related headline. Add to that new concerns about events where the virus is spread.
“That means there is the potential for a headline that we can’t control,” said Sanderson. “We’re hopeful our members will take stock of the situation around the social scene and be smart about that. I anticipate many and most of them will, maybe not everybody.”
Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones are both holding fundraisers in Ocean City during the convention.
“I plan to follow all state and local guidance and will be explicitly encouraging individuals to use a mask indoors,” Ferguson said when asked about the event.
Similarly, Sen. J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore and Harford counties, said he will continue to hold his annual fundraiser and reception without mask requirements.
“I hope people that come are following the CDC guidelines and that they have been vaccinated,” said Jennings. “Those that have not, they should be wearing a mask per the CDC guidelines. That’s the way it will be. They’ll police themselves. I’m going to treat everyone as an adult, a responsible adult, and expect them to do what they think is right.”
Annapolis power lobbyist Bruce Bereano said he will return to in-person meetings with clients and government officials at a local restaurant.
“I’m not concerned, and I’ll tell you why I am not concerned,” said Bereano. “I am full vaccinated. I’m acting appropriately. I am carrying my mask with me and if there is a situation where I feel it’s needed, I’ll put it on. I am going to act as I have been throughout the pandemic — in a responsible manner.”
Bereano can frequently be found holding a series of rolling breakfast and brunch meetings in a corner booth of the Dough Roller near the convention center.
The lobbyist openly refers to the location as his “Ocean City office.”
“There is absolutely no substitute for in-person conversations and meetings,” said Bereano.