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Baltimore County Council extends pandemic emergency order amid partial reopening

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski announced that he'll ease restrictions on retail store businesses and will reopen at 9 a.m. Friday.

Baltimore County Council is extending County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.'s state of emergency order, hours after Olszewski announced the county is moving forward with its first phase of reopening.

Council voted 6-1 on Thursday in favor of extending the Democrat’s declaration for another 45 days after the council previously extended the decree twice. Republican Councilmen David Marks and Wade Kach unsuccessfully pushed for amendments to limit the duration of the order, and Councilman Todd Crandell voted against the resolution overall.

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Crandell also proposed a resolution for the council to revoke Olszewski’s order, but it failed to make it to a vote after the executive’s resolution was passed.

The emergency order, which would have expired next week, gives the county greater leverage in obtaining federal and state resources to respond to the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus. The order also allows Olszewski to restrict restaurants, businesses, churches and other places where people gather. Olszewski applauded the council’s vote in a released statement.

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“I thank the vast majority of the County Council who voted today to protect the health and wellbeing of Baltimore County’s residents. These Councilmembers have been thoughtful, engaged, and informed partners throughout this pandemic. We’re in this together and we’ll continue to get through this together,” Olszewski said in a statement.

Kach and the council’s other Republican members commended Olszewski for taking “a step in the right direction” by easing restrictions on retail stores and barbershops beginning Friday. Kach is nonetheless “disappointed" that churches remain “essentially closed,” and Marks said as many as 1,000 residents have emailed him in opposition to an extension.

Marks sought to have the council compromise to revisit the order within two weeks. Crandell, however, said “the people that we represent have already compromised enough.” Crandell said they “basically voted to suspend the Constitutional rights of our citizens.”

“Nothing that I’m saying is to try to diminish the seriousness of the coronavirus and its impact on our society,” Crandell said. “However, I firmly believe that we have choices as Americans that we are allowed to make.”

The online meeting lasted nearly two hours and featured heated moments as officials made their case for maintaining or removing the emergency order. Crandell’s resolution normally would have been discussed first, for instance, but Council Chair Cathy Bevins had members consider Olzsewski’s order first to allow County Health Director Dr. Gregory Wm. Branch to speak before he was needed at the open COVID-19 testing site at the Maryland State Fairgrounds.

That sparked a brief, yet intense, back-and-forth between Bevins and Crandell. Bevins eventually muted Crandell for nearly 30 minutes to give speaking time to Branch and County Attorney James Benjamin Jr.

“We all agree that there is a fundamental right to worship, but we must understand that it’s not absolute and that when you have an attempt to restrict free assembly or worship it must be justified by a clear and present danger,” Benjamin said.

Maryland’s total count of confirmed infections exceeds 43,000 while its fatalities from the virus have surpassed 2,045. Baltimore County, where more than 200 deaths have occurred, has one of the state’s highest infection counts.

County Administrative Officer Stacy Rodgers said the county is trying to make "thoughtful, deliberate decisions” on reopening based on daily reviews of data on the virus. Bevins, who stated the council would not be deterred by the spate of “threats and bullying” that she has received from opponents to the extension, stressed the county’s “slow and cautious” actions are important because COVID-19 affects everyone.

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