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Republicans to Hogan: Reopen the Chesapeake to recreational boaters during the coronavirus pandemic

The Coronavirus pandemic has lead to a ban on recreational boaters, leaving waterways, like the Severn River in Annapolis, empty of boat traffic.
The Coronavirus pandemic has lead to a ban on recreational boaters, leaving waterways, like the Severn River in Annapolis, empty of boat traffic. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Sunday, a beautiful sunny afternoon, Nic Kipke and his family took a walk on their neighborhood beach in Pasadena. The Republican delegate scanned the horizon and was amazed by what he didn’t see.

“I looked out at the Magothy River and there was not a single boat out there,” Kipke said. “It was really rather stunning.”

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Kipke is the leader of Republicans in the House of Delegates and joined his caucus Friday in urging Gov. Larry Hogan to lift the ban on recreational boating and other outdoor activities such as golf put in place last month to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. They called for a regional approach to reopening Maryland’s economy.

The House Minority leader and Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga met with Hogan and said they were confident the ban on recreational boating will be lifted or altered soon.

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“I think it’s quite reasonable that people could take a cruise with other family members without putting the safety of others at risk. I can’t imagine how that would have any negative outcomes,” Kipke said.

“I think the governor is on the same page and is going to announce some changes. I would hope we can get some boats out on the water soon. It’s good for health and well-being of our citizens.”

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Gov. Hogan, said “no one is more anxious than the governor to get the state open again,” and that recreational boating is part of that discussion.

“As the governor has said, we are working on a recovery plan for Maryland, and this is certainly a part of that discussion, as is getting all of our businesses open again, and getting people back to work as safely as possible,” Ricci said.

Maryland shares the Chesapeake Bay with Virginia, which has not banned recreational boating. However, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has implemented restrictions on certain activities.

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and Marine Resources Commission decreed that recreational boating is allowed as long as boaters maintain at least six feet of separation from other people who are not family, household members or caretakers.

New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and South Carolina recently announced a plan to resume recreational boating.

Szeliga, R-Baltimore County, said Maryland could reopen its waters using some of the same “common sense” guidelines.

“My district features a lot of waterfront, a lot of marinas, a lot of personal watercraft,” Szeliga said. “I’ve heard from many, many constituents that would like to see the boating restrictions eased, especially now that the weather is warming up.

State Sen. Sarah Elfreth, D-Annapolis, said there is no easy answer on ending the recreational boating ban.

Elfreth does not see a problem with residents that keep boats at their own private dock getting out on the water. However, she points out that a vast majority of boats are kept at marinas or on trailers.

“That requires getting in the car, driving to the marina, perhaps having the workers help launch your boat,” Elfreth noted. “That is when you run into problems in terms of complying with the governor’s stay at home order.”

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Elfreth said she has heard from a large number of constituents regarding the ban and said all she can do is pass their sentiments along to the Department of Natural Resources.

Hogan must consider Natural Resources Police, Coast Guard crews and Anne Arundel County firefighters in deciding to reopen boating, Elfreth said.

“I’m thinking of our first responders and making sure they are not vulnerable. We all know things change quickly on the Chesapeake Bay and rescues are often required,” she said. “I don’t envy the governor on this one. It is a very difficult decision.”

Currently, the DNR ban on recreational boating exempts kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards. Two recent high-profile rescues involved people in kayaks or canoes.

Annapolis resident Paul Bollinger, who owns a Formula 34-foot motorboat he keeps at Pier 4 Marina on Spa Creek, believes his vessel is safer than a kayak or canoe.

“I think the big canard is the idea we can’t have any people on the water because you might have to be rescued,” Bollinger said.

Bollinger was out on the water Sunday aboard his motorboat named Fandango. He initially planned to go fishing on the Chesapeake Bay, but it was too rough due to high winds. Instead, Bollinger and his wife cruised up the Severn River then anchored in Maynadier Creek where they enjoyed lunch while fishing for white perch.

A Natural Resources Police boat circled behind Bollinger’s and briefly turned on the siren. However, when officers saw two fishing poles deployed off the stern, they informed the couple they were in compliance. Hogan’s order allows recreational boating provided it is for the purpose of fishing for food.

Lauren Moses, a police spokeswoman, said state waterways are being regularly patrolled to ensure boaters are complying with the governor’s order. Violators can be charged with a maximum sentence of up to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

Moses said citizens found in non-compliance would be ticketed and/or arrested, not on a charge of boating but for violating the governor’s stay at home order.

Bollinger said almost all the boats he saw Sunday on the Severn River were fishing. He did spot one sailboat.

“For the most part, I think everyone is obeying the governor’s order,” Bollinger said. “That said, I don’t think the order was well thought out. It’s just a matter of taking the common-sense distancing approach we are following on land and applying it to the water. I can’t think of a safer activity than boating.”

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