OCEAN CITY — After a two hour-plus, often-tense debate, a divided Ocean City Council on Friday morning basically took no action on a proposed emergency ordinance requiring the wearing of masks on the Boardwalk and essentially deferred to Governor Larry Hogan’s amended mandate announced earlier this week.
On Wednesday, Hogan implemented an amended executive order mandating the wearing of masks in all outdoor public spaces where it is not possible to achieve social distancing. A violation of the directive will be handled as a misdemeanor with the appropriate fines and penalties.
Locally, the most obvious place affected by the change is the Boardwalk, where most have been wearing masks inside stores and amusements, for example, but the majority are not wearing masks while walking outdoors along the famed promenade. Hogan’s amended executive order on the surface appears to include the Boardwalk because social distancing is not often possible in the height of the summer season.
On Friday, the Mayor and Council held an emergency session to consider two separate, but distinctive, issues related to Hogan’s latest executive order. Mayor Rick Meehan, as he is authorized to do and as he has done throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, issued an emergency declaration requiring the wearing of masks at all times on the Boardwalk and at other outdoor special events.
Under the mayor’s executive order, non-compliance with the mask-wearing policy would result in a municipal infraction, essentially a ticket, with an appropriate fine, as opposed to the more severe misdemeanor penalty prescribed in the governor’s executive order. However, while Meehan was within his authority as mayor to implement the Boardwalk mask orders, changing the penalty from the governor’s prescribed misdemeanor to the lesser municipal infraction, akin to the town’s smoking ordinance for example, required the passage of an emergency ordinance by the majority of the council.
After two-plus hours of often tense debate, the council voted not to approve the emergency ordinance that would have created a municipal infraction for not wearing a mask on the Boardwalk. Instead, Meehan’s executive order will go into effect at 5 p.m. on Friday requiring the wearing of a mask or face-covering on the Boardwalk and a violation of the order will be treated as a misdemeanor in conjunction with the governor’s order and not as a municipal infraction.
It’s important to note, all were in agreement violations of the mask requirements should be handled by the Ocean City Police Department with education and outreach before stronger enforcement measures for non-compliance. In other words, police officers will at first remind visitors to the Boardwalk of the mask requirements and allow them to put them on or find or purchase one before charging them with a misdemeanor. Only in the most extreme cases during which an individual flat out refuses to put on a mask or gets confrontational with the police will someone be charged with a misdemeanor.
The other major issue to resolve was the hours during which the mayor’s executive order will be enforced. As first written, the mayor’s executive order was a blanket 24-hour requirement for wearing masks on the Boardwalk. The council debated restricting the requirement to certain peak times on the Boardwalk. One suggestion was from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., while another suggestion was to follow the same hours when bikes or dogs are allowed, or roughly 2 a.m. to 11 a.m. After considerable debate, Meehan acquiesced somewhat and amended his executive order to include the hours of 8 a.m. to 2 a.m.
It’s also important to note Hogan’s order requires masks in outdoor public areas when social distancing can not be accomplished. The mayor’s executive order follows the same guidelines, but in the case of the Boardwalk, there are few times during the day in the peak of the summer season, such as it is this year, when appropriate social distancing can be accomplished on the resort’s famed promenade.
Meehan expressed disappointment the council did not pass the emergency ordinance that would make the penalty for not complying with the mask requirement a municipal infraction. However, it became clear from the beginning of the two-hour-plus session there was little will among some on the council to do anything beyond what the governor has already mandated.
“This declaration takes us a step further then what the governor has ordered,” said Meehan. “We’ve done this before throughout this crisis. We can take action above and beyond what the governor has ordered.”
Meehan outlined the intent of his executive order in terms of social distancing.
“There are many instances when you can effectively social distance on the Boardwalk and there are many cases when that isn’t always possible,” he said. “All persons over the age of five must where masks when visiting, using or otherwise present on the Boardwalk. Anyone participating in our special events, whether indoor or outdoor, will be required to wear masks. This is the best way to go.”
Councilman John Gehrig questioned why the town was even considering an emergency ordinance when the governor’s directive was clearly spelled out.
“It feels like we’re going from zero to 100,” he said. “We’re over-reacting and we’re setting ourselves up for failure. There are peak times and peak places. If you’re down at 1st Street at peak time, by all means where a mask. If you’re up at 24th Street in the morning walking on the Boardwalk for exercise, then maybe it doesn’t need to be required. What the governor said is reasonable. We’re taking it to a different level.”
Councilman Matt James agreed the governor’s new order on Wednesday appeared to cover the mask requirements on the Boardwalk.
“Why are we going above and beyond if this is covered in the governor’s order?” he said. “Why do we need our own order that goes beyond what the governor has said?”
Councilman Mark Paddack downplayed the COVID-19 situation and said enacting an executive order and potentially passing an emergency order only preyed further on the public’s fear.
“I want my police going out and fighting crime,” he said. “The governor has issued his directive. The intent of this is valid, but what we’re doing with this is creating more fear. This is fear instead of science. The message we’re sending is fear. We might as well say don’t come to our Boardwalk because you could catch COVID.”
Council President Lloyd Martin said the police department would and should use discretion when enforcing the mask requirement on the Boardwalk.
“The police have discretion in anything we do,” he said. “It’s just like the smoking ordinance. For a long time, it was about education and outreach and writing citations was a last resort. We need to be kind to everybody. There will be cases where a family parked three blocks away and realized they didn’t have a mask or didn’t know it was required. Not everybody is immediately going to be hit with a citation.”
OCPD Chief Ross Buzzuro asked what the Mayor and Council’s desire was in terms of enforcement, whether it’s the governor’s directive, the mayor’s executive order, or the emergency ordinance, which ultimately did not pass.
“What is the expectation from us?” he said. “I believe it’s going to be education and discretion. I really need your input, so I can direct my team how handle this.”
Buzzuro explained how a typical situation might play out.
“We’ll advise them they have to wear a mask on the Boardwalk and if they don’t have on or can quickly get into compliance, they will have to leave,” he said. “If we write a citation and they tear it up, or otherwise become belligerent, it moves into an arrest situation. Most will comply and there won’t be many problems, but there will be that one in 10 or one in 100 that creates a problem.”
Councilman Dennis Dare said there was a reason why Hogan amended his executive orders to include the mask requirement in outdoor public areas.
“The governor is putting the state on pause because he has concerns,” he said. “We’re starting to see some metrics that aren’t good. He all but said the Ocean City Boardwalk because we’re in the spotlight right now. If we don’t do this and there are spikes, we’re going to go back to the stay at home order. Talk about hurting business and hotel cancellations?”
Again, the mayor’s proposed executive order was a for a blanket 24-hour requirement for masks on the Boardwalk, but he expressed a willingness to adjust it.
“If it is the will of the council, I’m willing to adjust this to say 8 a.m. to 2 a.m.,” he said. “The worst publicity is people not wearing masks and standing on top of each other. That isn’t always the reality, but it is the perception. The worst perception is Ocean City only cares about the money and not about public health. Let’s be the example. All eyes are on us and this is the right thing to do.”
In the end, Meehan’s executive order was issued requiring the wearing of masks on the Boardwalk with few exceptions between the hours of 8 a.m. and 2 a.m. A violation of the ordinance will be handled as a misdemeanor, but the goal is voluntary compliance and police will not make the immediate jump to charge individuals who don’t comply, but rather will rely and education and outreach.
The sister emergency order that would have made non-compliance with the mask requirement a simple municipal infraction akin to the smoking ordinance, for example, did not pass. Dare made the motion and it was seconded by Council Secretary Mary Knight, but it failed on a 2-4 vote with James, Paddack, Gehrig and DeLuca opposed.