Church bells chiming from St. Anne’s Parish in downtown Annapolis were barely audible Saturday afternoon, no match against blaring horns coming from vehicles crawling around the church’s outer traffic circle.
Hundreds of protesters clogged the city’s streets in a parade of cars in protest of restrictions on the economy brought about by the governor in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“More people die from poverty than this coronavirus. We grieve those losses, they are real lives, but so are all these people who are suffering,” said organizer Evie Harris, a Baltimore-area nurse.
Gov. Larry Hogan issued several executive orders during the public health crisis aimed at containing the deadly virus’ spread by keeping people inside and at a distance from one another. In Maryland, there are 12,308 confirmed coronavirus cases; 463 people have died.
But the decision to close all non-essential businesses to mitigate its spread resulted in sharp economic losses and severe consequences that many protesters fear will be lasting.
Nearly 297,000 people have filed for unemployment in Maryland over the past month, among 22 million people seeking jobless claims across the country. The swell in claims overwhelmed a state system that struggled to keep up with the unprecedented rate of layoffs. State officials say the technical issues have since been fixed.
“If I don’t get back to work, I can’t live. I have no money coming in,” said Dolores Garrity, a Kent Island resident who owns a small hair salon with four employees in Crofton.
Garrity said she hasn’t received her federal stimulus check and doesn’t qualify for government aid like unemployment benefits, SNAP or small-business grants. Her salon brought in $13,000 a month to pay her employees and herself. Now it makes nothing.
Queen Anne’s County has 24 confirmed coronavirus cases. A blanket shutdown of all businesses doesn’t seem fair to Garrity, who would rather ramp up cleaning and space out customer appointments than go bankrupt a year before retiring.
“It’s either die from the coronavirus if you catch it or die from not being able to live,” Garrity, 61, said.
Maryland’s Republican state delegates sent a letter to Hogan Saturday, asking him to consider a regional approach to relaxing restriction so workers like Garrity can reopen their businesses. They wrote that there are lower infection and hospitalization rates in rural areas, such as Western Maryland, Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore.
“We fundamentally believe that what works in one region of the state may not be applicable to others,” wrote members of the House of Delegates Republican Caucus.
On Friday, Hogan addressed his critics during a news conference, saying he understood the frustration caused by the restrictions but emphasized their necessity.
“I completely understand why people are anxious to get things going. I want to get our economy back and get things opened up as quickly as possible just as much as anybody does,” Hogan said. “But we’re also going to have to do that in a safe manner.”
Saturday’s protest, organized on social media by a group called ReOpen Maryland, was a car-horn blast of frustration felt by residents over the government’s executive power. The crowd was generally peaceful but tense at times. There was a minor car crash after a man hopped out of his moving vehicle to confront another man. A couple holding a sign and making rude gestures at motorists were shoved by a man. Maryland Capitol Police reported no arrests.
In an online petition, the group said it wants Hogan to immediately reopen business, educational and religious institutions.
Natalie Brown, a Mount Airy resident and ReOpen Maryland supporter, speaks about reopening Maryland businesses, during a rally in Annapolis on April 18.
“This shutdown is devastating the economy, especially our small businesses and restaurants, and there’s no reason why the most powerful nation on Earth can’t protect the elderly and vulnerable at the same time we stand our economy back up,” said organizer Paul Brockman, a self-employed contractor.
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Health experts say social distancing is a vital measure in containing the spread of COVID-19, a disease that has claimed more than 30,000 American lives — the highest death total in the world.
“That’s why restaurants are closed, that’s why the mall is closed. We’re trying to prevent the spread,” said Karen Karnes, epidemiology program supervisor at Anne Arundel County’s health department. “That’s the universal recommendation and it’s been proven.”
The nation’s public health crisis took a political turn in several states this week. President Donald Trump tweeted that Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia, states under stay-at-home orders like Maryland’s, should “liberate.” Michigan saw a massive armed protest at its state capital Wednesday.
Donned in masks and flying Trump banners, Maryland protesters blasted The Beatles, classic rock and car alarms. Cars snaked back a mile waiting to enter State Circle from all directions. Although many protesters were socially distant in their cars, others stood close together, waving flags, sharing conversation and donating canned goods.