OCEAN CITY — After months of attempting to cajole Marylanders into following the various public health directives, Gov. Larry Hogan this week changed directions and promised stricter enforcement to gain compliance.
Through the nine months of the ongoing COVID pandemic, Hogan has been consistent in his messaging regarding social distancing, the wearing of face-coverings and limiting gathering sizes, for example, with mixed results. This week, Hogan took a sterner approach with the announcement of “high visibility compliance units” coordinated with the Maryland State Police (MSP) to enforce the various public health directives and executive orders.
The announcement comes on the heels of steadily increasing key COVID metrics in the state. For example, the streak of days during which at least 1,000 new cases were reported reached 20 this week, including a stretch of days with 2,000-plus new cases. The number of new cases is likely a byproduct of increased testing, but perhaps a more important indicator is testing positivity, which has hovered around 7% for the last two weeks.
As a result, while he stopped short of announcing more stringent directives this week, Hogan announced the launch of a new “all hands on deck” COVID compliance and enforcement operation in coordination with the MSP and allied county and local law enforcement agencies.
Through the initiative, additional MSP troopers will be assigned to each county in Maryland. In addition to the typical holiday drunk-driving saturation patrols, the additional troopers will be looking out for businesses and individuals who are not complying with the COVID directives. While part of the focus will be on education and outreach, it was clear from the governor the initiative announced on Monday is all about stricter enforcement.
“I know that there is a growing frustration that we are still fighting this virus,” he said. “Many people are struggling emotionally and financially, and this is causing a great deal of stress for nearly everyone, but following the public health directives is the only way we will be able to stop this virus, keep Maryland open for business and keep hospitals from overflowing.”
Hogan said the MSP has reached out to county sheriff’s departments and municipal police departments to assist with the compliance, education and enforcement operations.
“Many people are following the advice and complying with the directives,” he said. “However, the orders are only effective if they are being followed and enforced. The vast majority are doing the right thing, but many are experiencing COVID fatigue and some individuals and businesses are becoming more and more lax.”
Hogan pointed to what is typically one of the biggest nights of the year for bars and restaurants as potential super-spreaders.
“On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, kids come home from school and they’re out celebrating with their friends and packing the bars,” he said. “I can’t stress enough how reckless that would be this year. We can’t let a few bad actors spoil it for the majority who are doing the right thing.”
The governor said the new enforcement initiative will continue through the holidays and as long as it takes to quell the virus.
“We’re deploying a highly visible initiative to step up enforcement,” he said. “There will be additional state troopers in every county in Maryland to investigate any reports of non-compliance. The high visibility initiative will begin Thanksgiving eve and continue through the holidays.”
Locally, the Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) and the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office will work with the MSP on the ramped-up enforcement efforts. OCPD Deputy Communications Manager Ashley Miller said the department would likely attempt to educate violators before resorting to stronger enforcement measures if compliance is not gained.
“If our department receives a complaint or observes a facility that is not complying with orders, we will attempt to make contact with the manager or owner to ensure they are aware of the requirements,” she said. “If the manager or owner on-site is not willing to comply with the orders, our department will document it and then contact the Worcester County Health Department, which will then follow their enforcement protocol.”
For his part, Worcester County Sheriff Matt Crisafulli said his department would continue to work within parameters started at the beginning of the pandemic.
“The Worcester County Sheriff’s Office will continue to work in conjunction with the Worcester County Health Department and our allied partners,” he said. “We will continue to educate our residents and seek voluntary compliance during this pandemic. The cohesive partnerships have been beneficial for our county. All charging decisions are made in consultation with and at the discretion of the state’s attorney.”
Effective immediately, MSP will be hosting a hotline for any enforcement concerns. Citizens can call 833-979-2266 or email [email protected] with any perceived violations.