Wicomico Council Opposes Letters To Governor, Mayor

SALISBURY – Highlighting the inappropriate nature of the missives, officials in Wicomico County agreed to hold off on sending letters of concern to the Maryland governor and Salisbury mayor regarding COVID-19 mandates.

Last week, the Wicomico County Council agreed not to send letters to both Gov. Larry Hogan and Salisbury Mayor Jake Day regarding mandates surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak.

In March, Hogan declared a state of emergency and catastrophic health emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and issued an executive order prohibiting large gatherings, closing non-essential businesses, and requiring all persons to stay at home unless conducting essential activities. The governor also ordered anyone entering Maryland to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Following on the heels of the executive order, resort officials in Ocean City also took measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus by closing the beach and Boardwalk and placing lodging restrictions on hotels, motels and short-term rental properties through April 30. On April 1, Worcester County adopted its own emergency measures restricting all non-essential short-term rentals in West Ocean City, Ocean Pines and other unincorporated areas.

In an open work session last week, Council Attorney Robert Taylor told the legislative body he had drafted a letter to Hogan in response to concerns that were voiced by county officials in recent weeks. He said the letter would seek clarification from the governor’s office regarding a county’s ability to order that people from other states cannot enter or remain in a county or to order hotels, motels and other lodgings not to rent to them or allow them to reside at their facilities.

“This derives from concerns that were expressed last week when some council members became aware that some of the surrounding counties were passing these short-term rental bans,” he said. “The concern was people might come down there, be turned away, and wind up here.”

Taylor told the council it was unclear if the state allowed local governments to take such actions.

“In other states – New Jersey being a case in point – the governor has specifically given the counties, within the last couple of weeks, permission to do things like that,” he said. “It’s unclear in Maryland … [The governor] should give them the authority or be clear. There should be no uncertainty about it like there is now.”

Councilman Bill McCain said he did not support sending the letter.

“I feel like we’re wasting our time,” he said. “I don’t see what we’re accomplishing here.”

Taylor told the council the Eastern Shore could expect an influx of visitors and nonresident property owners in the coming weeks, particularly if bans and closures are lifted. He said those actions could put the county in a position to impose similar restrictions to protect Wicomico County residents.

“Any sickness that develops, from the people who come and spread it to the local residents, will come to this hospital here,” he said. “That’s the net result of what’s going to evolve here.”

Councilman John Cannon said he was in favor of sending a letter that had the support of the county executive’s office. He noted that Director of Administration Wayne Strausburg was sharing similar concerns with the governor’s office on a weekly basis.

“I think it’s a matter not so much about what we are saying, but how we are presenting ourselves …,” he said. “For the council to send a letter independently is a bit rouge and we should work through the executive branch on this.”

Many council members, however, were not in favor of sending any letter.

“I think what you are talking about is already being addressed through Wayne,” Councilman Ernie Davis said. “It should go through the executive, and it’s already being addressed.”

The council last week also agreed not to send a letter of concern to the Salisbury mayor. On April 4, Day issued an order limiting the maximum occupancy in commercial buildings, discontinuing self-serve foods and product sampling and establishing sanitation and social distancing practices.

“This results from a concern that was raised by somebody in the executive branch … they thought that the mayor’s order was unauthorized legally,” he said. “I think there’s grounds for that concern. There’s also concern about the fact that the order relating to the stores would essentially bifurcate the county. You’d have one rule for inside the city of Salisbury that didn’t apply to the county. That could result in confusion.”

Cannon, however, said concerns about the mayor’s order should be addressed individually.

“I don’t like the letter,” he said. “It should be discussed one on one. I don’t want to start laying out a gauntlet.”

Councilman Joe Holloway agreed.

“What the mayor does in Salisbury is what the mayor does in Salisbury,” he said. “It’s his town, not ours.”

McCain questioned why the council attorney would write the two letters.

“We are the county council,” he said. “Why is Mr. Taylor writing letters and bringing them to the county council?”

With no further discussion, the council agreed to hold off on sending the letter to Day.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate,” Councilwoman Nicole Acle said.

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.