OCEAN CITY — With a modest spike in new COVID-19 cases among young people, Gov. Larry Hogan this week issued a stern warning to counties to crack down on establishments flaunting the public health directives.
Hogan on Tuesday sent a letter to each county in Maryland including Worcester urging them to use their collective resources to crack down on certain establishments that continue to disregard the public health directives including social distancing, the wearing of masks inside and gathering size limitations. The governor’s letter to the counties came after statistics showed the positivity rate, while still comparatively low, had increased disproportionately among young people in Maryland.
“While states across the country and in our region are experiencing spikes and outbreaks, Maryland’s key COVID-19 health metrics continue to decline,” he wrote. “However, we are closely monitoring some concerning trends, including increasing infection rates among young people. The positivity rate among Marylanders under the age of 35 is now 84% higher than Marylanders 35 and older.”
In the letter, Hogan attributed the rise in new cases among young people to some businesses failing to comply with the state-mandated public health directives. For example, bars and restaurants are supposed to be open for seated service only with physical distancing and capacity restrictions. Guests must be seated at least six feet from other guests and all staff must wear masks while working and interacting with customers.
“An increasing number of COVID-19 cases have been connected to non-compliance with public health requirements, particularly in bars and restaurants,” he wrote. “Businesses that fail to comply with the state’s orders put their customers and employees at grave risk and jeopardize our safe, effective and gradual recovery.”
Hogan called on the counties and local jurisdictions to pull their collective resources to monitor and enforce the public health directives including the local health departments, the liquor boards, the fire marshal’s offices and law enforcement. The governor praised those establishments that are following the rules and doing the right thing, but singled out a few “bad apples” that put the state’s recovery plan in jeopardy.
“The vast majority of bars and restaurants in our state are in compliance, but some are flagrantly violating the law and endangering public health,” he wrote. “You have the responsibility to enforce these laws. Violators should be warned, fined, have actions taken regarding their licenses or closed if necessary. Local health departments, local liquor boards and inspectors and local law enforcement agencies must work together to ensure public health is protected.”
Hogan urged counties and local jurisdictions to seek out those establishments that are flaunting the rules and take the appropriate enforcement action for the good of all businesses that are doing the right thing.
“Our continued economic health and recovery depend on the active and aggressive local enforcement of these critical public health measures,” he wrote. “We cannot allow a small segment of willful violators to squander the collective efforts of the overwhelming majority of Maryland citizens and businesses.”
During Tuesday’s work session, Mayor Rick Meehan addressed Hogan’s letter to the counties. In Ocean City, a growing number of businesses have closed temporarily for a variety of reasons. Some have had one or more staff members test positively for COVID-19 while others are simply taking a break to deep clean their facilities and take a collective breather for their staff.
“So many of our businesses are going above and beyond and they are doing extraordinary things,” he said. “It’s been a difficult time, but most are doing the right thing and following the directives. While our businesses are doing everything they can, we also have to rely on our patrons to do the right thing.”
In response to Hogan’s letter issued earlier on Tuesday, Meehan said the town of Ocean City needed to work with its various partners to ensure enforcement.
“We need to look into everything we can do from the city’s standpoint to help with enforcement,” he said. “That means working with the health department, the Board of License Commissioners, our Fire Marshal’s Office and our own police department. The last thing we want to do is take a step backward.”
During Hogan’s press conference on Tuesday, a press conference largely devoted to the discovery of a vast unemployment insurance claim fraud scheme uncovered by state officials, the conversation inevitably came back around COVID-19 and the modest spike in new cases among young people.
“While our key metrics continue to plateau, this battle is not behind us, not by a long shot,” he said. “All Marylanders are safer at home. Low risk does not mean no risk.”
Hogan pointed to the sharp increase in new cases in other states and attributed those spikes to loosely enforced rules regarding bars and restaurants.
“Many other states opened bars without restrictions and now they are closing them back down because of spikes in cases,” he said. “We never opened bars like that in Maryland. Our bars are supposed to be open for seated guests that want to eat and have a drink with the appropriate spacing only. There should not be crowds in bars standing and in close proximity to others.”
Hogan emphasized most bars and restaurants are closely following the directives, but some continue to flaunt the public health directives.
“Ninety percent are following the rules,” he said. “Some are completely and blatantly not following the rules and we want to crack down on those bad apples.”
During his press conference on Tuesday, Hogan specifically mentioned some of the temporary closures in Ocean City.
“There has been a situation in Ocean City where five or six restaurants immediately shut down when they had a staff member test positively,” he said. “That’s what we’re encouraging. They did the right thing.”
Hogan said it will take a coordinated effort among all the various departments involved in enforcement to crack down on the scofflaws and ensure Maryland does not see a significant spike in new cases.
“It’s the responsibility of the counties and the municipalities,” he said. “What we’re finding is the health departments are saying they’re too busy with testing to do enforcement and law enforcement is saying they don’t have a citation to issue. We need to get the health departments, the liquor boards and law enforcement to all get together and figure out how to do it in a coordinated way.”