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Hogan tightens mask order, warns against out-of-state travel

ANNAPOLIS — In response to a continuing rise in coronavirus infections across Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan on Wednesday, July 29, warned residents against traveling to certain states and expanded statewide masking restrictions to include public areas of all businesses and some outdoor public spaces.

Hogan said the broadened masking mandate, which takes effect at 5 p.m. Friday, July 31, applies to outside public areas where maintaining a six-foot distance from non-household members is not possible, and all indoor spaces where “interaction with others is likely,” such as shared office spaces.

The updated rules are an expansion of the governor’s previous order that established a mask requirement in grocery stores, pharmacies, retail and food service establishments, and on public transportation.

Among the states Marylanders are advised against visiting “until their positivity rates decline,” Hogan said, are Florida, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana, Nebraska, Idaho, Alabama and Alaska — all of which are reporting significant spread of the coronavirus and positivity rates greater than 10%.

Hogan said Marylanders who must travel out-of-area to the advised-against states are encouraged to immediately self-quarantine and get tested for the coronavirus upon their return to Maryland.

The governor’s travel warnings and expanded masking restrictions come in reaction to increasing coronavirus-related hospitalizations in Maryland and are fueled by his desire to avoid shutting the state down again if there’s a resurgence of infections.

Hogan called his move to establish the new rules “fact-based” and “apolitical,” and said his team of experts “unanimously felt this was the only step we needed to take right now.”

To illustrate Maryland’s need for the “simple steps,” the governor pointed to other states across the country that have had to reimpose shutdowns after premature re-openings. “We don’t want to be in that position,” he said.

A “simple thing like masking,” Hogan said, will keep Maryland from shutting down, which would be especially difficult considering that “very few things” remain closed in the state.

The governor also said Wednesday the Maryland Department of Health’s contact tracing efforts have helped public health leaders determine the activities that are posing the highest risk to Marylanders for contracting the virus.

Family gatherings, Hogan said, have accounted for 44% of infections, house parties 23% and outdoor gatherings 21%. Other higher-risk activities include working outside of home, which was linked to 54% of infections, retail shopping at 39%, outdoor dining at 23% and indoor dining at 23%.

Of those individuals who are becoming infected at workplaces, 25% worked in healthcare, 23% in non-public-facing offices, 13% in public-facing workspaces and 12% in food service, the governor said.

Hogan said “time will tell” whether the travel advisory and the increased masking restrictions help stave off a predicted surge of infections as the virus continues to rage across Maryland. He said his team of experts “seem to think these steps will help, but it’s by no means a guarantee.”

“There’s no guarantee that we can stop it, but these are steps that could help and they’re pretty simple steps,” the governor said, adding, Maryland is in “much better shape” than it was in the spring, but “it is not a guarantee that we’re not going to be in bad shape in the fall or in the months to come.”

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County approves submitting proposed charter amendment to voters

ELKTON — The Cecil County Council voted 4-1 in a Tuesday evening special meeting to approve a charter amendment to be submitted to the voters in November.

The resolution would amend Article 2 of the Cecil County Charter under Section 205 “Qualifications” to expand the rules to allow a wider range of individuals to allow “non-elected board members, committee members and employees of state, county and municipal agencies, not under the direct supervision or substantially controlled by the County Executive or County Council, to be qualified as a County Council Member.”

The resolution, which was amended in part at the council’s meeting Tuesday, would be submitted to the voters in Cecil County as Question A on the Nov. 3, General Election ballot.

Attorney John Downs, a council attorney, said the goal of the change in the charter would be to expand the number of people that are eligible to run for county council. He noted that currently there are certain groups that are excluded that do not have a conflict of interest.

He said the important point to consider is whether or not a person could be hired or fired, given a raise, or otherwise supervised by or be under the control of the executive or the county council. Those who did not fit in these categories could be able to run for county council

Prior to the final vote on the resolution, a public hearing was held regarding the matter and several members of the public spoke both for and against the proposed resolution.

During the public hearing, Joyce Bowlsbey, who was the chairman of the board that wrote the charter 10 years ago, said the intent of section 205 was to prevent a scenario where for instance five librarians might be on the council at the same time and be voting for budgets pertaining to the library. She said it was not meant to preclude members of a non-profit organization that might receive funds from the county. She noted that the charter committee worked for two years on the language that would go into the charter and that the document was by no means a cookie cutter document.

Lori Hrinko also spoke on the matter during the public hearing portion and said the matter of who can run has been an issue for years. She said the amendment would allow other people, such as teachers, to run for council seats.

Cecil County Attorney Jason Allison said that amending the charter would have no effect on the participation restrictions and conflict of interest provisions in the Cecil County Code section on ethics. He said all county officials have to comply with the ethics code regardless of the proposed amendment.

Allison noted that the proposed change would have unintended consequences in matters of who could participate on the council. He said the ethics code would remain applicable and that elected officials could still be prohibited from taking action on or participating in certain matters before the council despite the amendment to the charter.

“It is foreseeable that an elected official may not be precluded from participation in certain matters under the charter, but could act in violation of the ethics code,” he said.

He further noted that the amendment may in fact give rise to blatant conflicts of interest and he noted that there is nothing wrong with charter section 205 as currently written.

During council discussion on the matter, council member Bill Coutz (R-District 2) said the amendment would give the county council the opportunity to allow more qualified and willing individuals to run for a seat.

Council President Bob Meffley said the proposed change is not a radical one and that the final decision on whether the proposal passes would be up to the voters of Cecil County.

Council member Al Miller (R-District 3) was the lone no vote to put the matter before the voters. Muller said that he felt the citizens did an awesome job originally in the drafting and approval of the charter and he was not in favor of making the change.

Beating the summer heat

ELKTON — Although the thermometer indicated Thursday was a few degrees cooler than it had been earlier in the week, Cecil County was still in search of ways to cool off.

The B & O Station at Childs in 1891.

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Man gets 10 years for assault, arson of Elkton-area home

ELKTON — A man who burned down a relative’s home near Elkton in January 2018 while in a delusional state of mind caused by his methamphetamine use received a 10-year prison term on Wednesday.

Cecil County Circuit Court Judge William W. Davis Jr. imposed a 15-year sentence on the defendant, Elkton-area resident Brandon Michael Reynolds, 43, for first-degree arson and then suspended five years of it.

Davis also imposed a consecutive 15-year sentence on Reynolds for first-degree assault, before suspending that entire penalty.

The judge ordered Reynolds to serve five years of supervised probation after completing his 10-year term in a Maryland Department of Corrections prison. Reynolds must submit to a drug evaluation and treatment and counseling as one of his probation conditions.

In addition, Davis ordered Reynolds to pay $24,970 in restitution to the victims for the belongings that they lost in the intentionally-set blaze. (The defense reported Wednesday that insurance covered the loss of the home.)

As part of a plea deal in February, Reynolds pleaded guilty to those two felony charges, which combined are punishable by up to 55 years in prison. Prosecutors agreed to dismiss seven related charges against Reynolds — including attempted first-degree murder, attempted second-degree murder and attempted home invasion – in exchange for his guilty pleas.

Reynolds’ defense lawyer, Ellis Rollins III, told the judge Wednesday that his client was “under the influence of crack (cocaine) and meth” at approximately 4 p.m. on Jan. 3, 2018, when he set fire at 159 Silchester Drive — a home where the grandfather of his son resided. That residence is located in the Surrey Ridge development off of Route 213 (Singerly Road), north of Elkton.

“He was delusional. This was his son’s grandfather. He believed the grandfather harmed his son in some fashion,” Rollins said, stressing that Reynolds’ perception and judgment had been clouded by his drug use and that there was no validity to the suspicions on which his client acted.

Speaking to the judge on behalf of Reynolds during Wednesday’s proceeding, his mother, girlfriend and employer all expressed shock that he had committed the crimes.

They blamed Reynolds’ drug addiction for his actions on Jan. 3, 2018, maintaining that such criminal acts belie who he is as a sober person — a good, peaceful, respectful, hard-working man.

“I’ve known him since birth. I don’t know who did this burning, but it’s not the Brandon I know,” his employer told the judge, reporting that Reynolds “still has his job” when he is able to work again.

Reynolds expressed contrition while addressing the judge moments before sentencing.

“There is no excuse for what I did, and I want them (the victims) to know how sorry I am,” Reynolds said, seconds after he glanced back at his mother, girlfriend and employer seated in the courtroom pews and commented, “I am sorry for the pain and trouble I caused you. Thank you for your support. I love each and every one of you.”

The incident

According to Maryland State Police and court records, the incident leading to Reynolds’ arrest and the criminal charges against him started when he arrived at 159 Silchester Drive about 3:50 p.m. on Jan. 3, 2019.

Reynolds, whom investigators believed was brandishing a knife, assaulted the grandfather during an argument there, police said. Shortly thereafter, the victim detected smoke and noticed that the front of the house was engulfed in flames, police added.

Also present in the home at the time of the attack was Reynolds’ son, police said, adding that Reynolds did not know that his son was in the home before lighting the fire.

Everyone was able to safely escape the burning home, according to police.

Shortly after arriving at the scene, MSP troopers and Cecil County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrested Reynolds, police said. Investigators believed that Reynolds planned the assault and that he was under the influence of drugs at the time of the incident, police added.

According to charging documents, Reynolds confessed to investigators that he had used methamphetamine on the day before the attack.

Reynolds attempted to mislead investigators, telling them that he walked to the home from Elkton and that the fire was started accidentally when a lit cigarette fell on a straw welcome mat, police reported.

But in a later interview, according to court records, Reynolds admitted that he drove to the home and poured gasoline on the front porch — accidentally lighting the gas can on fire and, consequently, thwarting his plan to also set fire at the rear of the home.

Instead, Reynolds ran to the back of the home and confronted the grandfather with a knife, in an attempt to keep him inside the burning home, court records show.

More than a dozen police officers and emergency medical personnel responded to the home, police said. Numerous firefighters with several area volunteer fire companies also responded, extinguishing the blaze and then inspecting the gutted home afterward, police added.

The sentencing

Assistant State’s Attorney Nathaniel Bowen sought 15 years of active incarceration for Reynolds, specifically asking for a five-year sentence for the defendant’s first-degree arson conviction and a consecutive 20-year sentence, with 10 years suspended, for his first-degree assault conviction.

State sentencing guidelines, which are based on a defendant’s criminal record and other factors, called for a penalty ranging from nine to 14 years of active incarceration for Reynolds. Bowen’s recommendation fell one year above the top end of those sentencing guidelines.

Rollins, on the other hand, asked the judge to fashion a sentence that would allow Reynolds to serve his time in the Cecil County Detention Center, which incarcerates inmates who are serving terms that are 18 months or less.

The defense lawyer reported that sentencing guidelines relating specifically to his client’s first-degree arson conviction set a penalty range of three to 10 years.

Moreover, he noted that Reynolds already had served 18 months as a pre-trial inmate since his January 2018 arrest and that the judge had given his client credit for that time of incarceration. Rollins requested a sentence at the bottom of those sentencing guidelines relating to Reynolds’ first-degree arson conviction.

In pushing for that three-year sentence, Rollins argued that his client’s two convictions stem from the same incident. “This was one integral event. It is not two separate crimes,” Rollins opined to the judge.

Davis, however, decided that Reynolds should serve much more than three years.

While explaining the reasons for the 10-year prison term that he imposed on Reynolds, Davis acknowledged from the bench that Reynolds was impaired by drugs at the time of the Jan. 3, 2018 incident and that they drove his actions.

But, nevertheless, Reynolds still is responsible for setting a “raging fire,” according to Davis, who asserted from the bench that Reynolds intended to cause serious harm when he did so.

“You wanted to burn them out and kill them,” Davis told Reynolds, reminding the defendant that he set a fire at the front of the home, near an exit, and that he also had a plan, which was thwarted, to start another blaze at the back of the house.

Davis said he considered the “sheer dangerousness” of Reynolds’ actions as one of the factors when determining the sentence he would impose.

Providing context to his comments, Davis estimated that 90 percent of the criminal cases over which he presides are drug-related to various degrees, ranging from “theft to assault to arson and even murder.”

“This one problem (drug abuse) runs the gamut from little too big. To what level did you let that problem impact others?” Davis told Reynolds, before remarking, “You contemplated killing people.”

Carole Soltis, an AARP Tax Aide volunteer, works on a tax return safely inside Calvert Grange Hall in Rising Sun. Soltis was site coordinator as well.