There was no 10-person limit, and few facial coverings were worn at two former elected officials’ Thursday evening meeting, where critics gathered to air grievances about the state’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is constitutional, and this is moral,” said Deb Rey at Thursday evening’s meeting, which an email invite from her campaign advertised as a “tailgate,” but was actually a gathering of 17, including one reporter, inside Callaway Baptist Church.
“It was a miscommunication” among the organizers, Rey, a former Republican state delegate, said in a later phone interview. “It wasn’t clear to me we were going to be allowed inside.”
Rey and former Republican county commissioner Cindy Jones planned the meeting to address concerns about the state’s actions against the pandemic, and to discuss methods to pressure county officials to create a local plan to reopen all businesses, in an offshoot of a larger “Reopen Maryland” group.
The local group was started after Jones began doing her own research on the virus and noticed “so much conflicting information, and so many different narratives” regarding the virus, she said in a phone interview following the meeting.
The group showed disdain for the current classification of essential businesses, and its leaders, in a petition to county commissioners, requested the reopening of “all businesses” in St. Mary’s, noting that small businesses are feeling the effects of a shutdown more than big-box stores.
“Why should Walmart have 250 people in their store, but the small businesses have to close, is someone paying someone?” asked Callaway Baptist Church Pastor Dan Moore, who said on top of online services, he has been holding in-person services at the church in defiance of the governor’s orders throughout the pandemic. “Follow the money.”
Hogan allows leeway; officials wary of starting too soon
Rey said Monday that reopening plans from Gov. Larry Hogan (R), which may begin their first phase this week and are similar to the White House’s guidelines for states, are “too slow,” with the three-phase plan not completely opening businesses and large religious gatherings until the third phase.
“I think Governor Hogan is going off the information he has and is listening to people he trusts, and I don’t fault him for that, but I think he’s making the wrong choices,” she said, noting that the first phase of Hogan’s plan only allows for small religious gatherings outdoors, but large chain stores are currently allowed to have a large amount of customers.
She said the state’s “one-size-fits-all” approach does not fit St. Mary’s, citing a relatively low amount of deaths.
The St. Mary’s health department on Tuesday reported nine deaths and 257 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The state reported more than 34,000 cases and 1,643 deaths related to the coronavirus as of yesterday morning.
Arguing that the government’s response to the virus is geared toward urban centers, Jones said St. Mary’s should have a pandemic response “specific to the locale,” pointing to a large amount of the primarily rural population remains essential, working or contracting for the Department of Defense, but a small chunk of the population has been unemployed due to the pandemic.
“They have to have a way to get an income,” she said. “We need to take care of them just like we need to take care of those who are immunocompromised.”
On Tuesday, a spokesperson for Hogan confirmed the governor is allowing counties to develop their own reopening plans, and Commissioner John O’Connor (R) said at Tuesday’s commissioners meeting he had reached out to the governor’s office, noting “a local plan is going to be best for our county.”
“I think it’ll take teamwork and some further guidance from the governor’s office,” he said, also adding he was interested in lifting restrictions on religious gatherings and small businesses.
At the meeting, Commissioner President Randy Guy (R) indicated opposition to locally based reopening, noting that Prince George’s County, which he called “one of the most infectious counties,” is geographically close to St. Mary’s.
When deciding on reopening, Jones said she believes governments should weigh the economic risks involved in the state’s response.
“People out there who have family members who are immunocompromised, they don’t want us to reopen, and that needs to be weighted highly,” she said. “The other part of this health equation is people who haven’t been able to get health screenings. You have suicidal people who are using drugs, you have people drinking more, you have child abuse, spousal abuse,” she said.
St. Mary’s Commissioner Mike Hewitt (R) said Monday that disagreeing with the government’s orders is a “perfectly natural, perfectly normal way to express your opinions,” as a commissioner, he would defer to health experts.
“Am I an expert on when people should reopen? No, I’m not, I have to take my information from the experts,” he said. “I don’t think I’m qualified to make that call” to reopen businesses.
Hewitt noted previous advice from St. Mary’s Health Officer Dr. Meena Brewster, where she told commissioners of a possible peak as late as mid-June.
“If you have a greater number of people in hospitals and overwhelming the health care facilities, that’s a problem,” Hewitt said. “Do I want to reopen Maryland? Absolutely. Do I want to do it too soon? Absolutely not.”
Brewster said through a spokesperson the governor’s reopening plan acknowledges regional differences which may influence local decision making.
“Our ongoing goal is preventing the spread of illness, protecting the life of our residents, and preserving our health care resources from a surge in demand that could become overwhelming,” the health department spokesperson said. “We want to do what we can to meet these goals while addressing the needs related to our local economy,” she added, also saying that any reopening would likely take place in phases to monitor if the reopening of certain businesses would cause a spike in cases.
Group requests public input, data
Another part of Rey and Jones’ proposal, other than reopening businesses and ending the governor’s stay-at-home orders at the local level, is for the county commissioners to hold weekly meeting as the board of health, open to public comment and questions through the county’s COVID-19 hotline.
Currently, the commissioners convene as the board as health at meetings to take advice from Brewster on an occasional basis. Outside of the pandemic, the commissioners convene as the board of health once or twice a year.
“I’m banging them over the head,” Jones said at the reopen meeting last week. “What I want them to do is take questions over the hotline,” and take public testimony, she said. “I think that’s what open, honest and transparent government is.”
Hewitt said he wasn’t opposed to the idea of taking public comment as the board of health.
“I wouldn’t be opposed to that, the more opportunity you have to take [comment] from the public, the better,” Hewitt said.
Rey called for more data on the St. Mary’s health department’s website, including data on the “severity” of the cases, the number of hospital beds in use, age ranges for deaths, as well as the number of suicides and domestic violence incidents in the county amid the pandemic.
“We need more data so we can determine for ourselves what these doctors and scientists say is true,” she said.
“So far, we have not seen a local increase in the rate of suicides for St. Mary’s County,” Brewster said through a spokesperson Tuesday, noting the health department is monitoring the data closely.
Also present at the meeting was current school board candidate DeForest Rathbone, who said in introductory statements that the “only good things” about the virus were that “it killed the Kirwan commission,” referring to Hogan’s veto of the major education bill last Thursday, and that the virus “shut the schools down,” because the schools are “one of the major marketplaces for marijuana.”
Rathbone also said he had attempted to contact a federal prosecutor for the District of Maryland based on U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s April 27 memo which urged Department of Justice prosecutors to “be on the lookout for state and local directives that could be violating the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens,” but did not get a response.