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Anne Arundel health inspectors say they face hostility during coronavirus enforcement checks

Reports of hostility toward Anne Arundel County Health Department inspectors have prompted officials to reconsider their approach — not sending women inspectors out alone and temporarily ceasing evening enforcement and high-risk daytime enforcement.

County Executive Steuart Pittman said fear of “civil unrest” has made county officials hesitant about further ramping up enforcement of coronavirus restrictions as the Thanksgiving holidays loom, bringing with it its trademark large family gatherings.

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Officers will ask groups of people in violation to disperse, but, he said, “We do not want to fuel the flames of the divisions that exist.”

He said the harassment of health department inspectors prompted calls to county police for support in some cases. Health officials will meet with police this week to discuss how to address the safety concern for inspectors.

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Over the weekendCounty Health Officer Nilesh Kalyanaraman said health department inspectors were at The Birdcage in Glen Burnie for violations including unmasked people, people ordering drinks at the bar and exceeding the allowed capacity.

While police were on their way, Kalyanaraman said inspectors were “verbally berated,” and one inspector’s photo was taken while he was getting into his car. The photo was later posted on a Facebook page belonging to Christopher Tepper with the caption “ALL BARS!! Keep your eye out for this piece of (expletive redacted)!”

The post was shared 100 times by Tuesday. It’s unclear whether a patron or an employee posted it — neither Tepper nor The Birdcage could be reached for comment Tuesday.

Kalyanaraman said he understands that it is a tough time for everyone, but it is inappropriate for frustrations about COVID-19 restrictions to be taken out on environmental health staff and inspectors.

“Our staff, and particularly our female staff, are met with hostility at a level that we had never seen before, and frankly, it’s not acceptable. They are doing their job; they’re doing what we’ve asked them to do,” Kalyanaraman said. “And what we’ve asked them to do is decrease the risk in public so that we can control COVID — so that we can ultimately keep our society open.”

Kalyanaraman said that when women inspectors are sent out with men inspectors, they report experiencing less hostility.

Like much of the state and country, Anne Arundel County is experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases. Officials have slowly been imposing stricter restrictions to try to stop the spread. Gov. Larry Hogan is imposing statewide restrictions, prohibiting establishments that serve alcohol from operating after 10 p.m., and restricting visitor access to hospitals and nursing homes.

Locally, Pittman cut back the social gathering caps, prohibiting more than 10 people from gathering indoors and 25 from gathering outdoors. Capacity limits in restaurants and bars have recently been cut back further. A limit on how late establishments serving alcohol could operate was lifted briefly but will soon be re-implemented.

County officials continue to stress limiting social gatherings as a priority to contain the virus, but Pittman said he’s hesitant to implement an aggressive enforcement strategy ahead of the holidays.

If officers respond to a complaint of a violation of the gathering limit, Pittman said they would inform the group of the order and ask them to disperse.

“But there are people who are trying to make a point and claiming that these restrictions are violations of their fundamental freedoms, and feeling they are supported by the president of the United States and many others in the country," Pittman said.

He’s decided the county should take an enforcement approach that is educational and encourages residents to “do the right thing."

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“We don’t expect to be to be putting handcuffs on anybody for social gatherings,” Pittman said.

Councilman Nathan Volke, R-Pasadena, said he’s reached out to the Department of Health and Pittman’s administration on multiple occasions on behalf of business owners who said inspectors treated them unfairly.

He said “99.9%” of the business owners in his district want to abide by the restrictions and do the right thing, but said he doesn’t fault them for sometimes being confused because the rules have changed multiple times.

“The problem for the business community is, they are trying to follow the rules, but the rules are so unclear. Many times they are arbitrary and don’t make a lot of sense,” Volke said.

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