As cases of the coronavirus rise again, Americans received a public health warning from the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, this week: Start rethinking your Thanksgiving plans.
Fauci said the fall holiday could set off a dangerous risk of infection, as the season sees spikes in travel and intimate, indoor family gatherings with older relatives. Each person should conduct a risk-benefit analysis before heading to the Thanksgiving table as normal, he said.
"We’ve really got to double down on fundamental public health measures that we talk about every day because they can make a difference,” Fauci said.
Meanwhile, with Halloween just around the corner, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have laid out guidelines for families that still wish to participate in door-to-door trick-or-treating. Setting up individually wrapped “goodie bags” classifies as a moderate risk, though it does considerably minimize the face-to-face element of the exchange.
The CDC has evaluated some of Halloween’s most popular activities by risk level, from low-risk pumpkin carving high-risk house parties.
To catch Marylanders up on the stories they may have missed, here are five key points from The Baltimore Sun’s coronavirus coverage this week.
Many Marylanders still haven’t gotten needed unemployment benefits
Maryland Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson said the department has processed close to 90% of the claims for unemployment insurance. That leaves some 54,000 people in limbo, many of whom are down to their last dollars and at the edge of financial ruin.
Some have become homeless or maxed out their credit cards as they await the funds they say they are owed. Others have reluctantly turned to friends and family for help or have become reliant on public assistance such as food stamps.
Several people told The Baltimore Sun that while their claims have technically been processed, problems with their accounts have held up funds they need.
Getting through to speak to someone has been a major source of frustration for claimants who say they call hundreds of times only to click through various options and wind up being told to try calling later. They also say they’re told they need to be interviewed to resolve problems with their claims, and wait weeks and even months to be called.
Robinson said the problem has been one of volume — the department has processed more than 672,000 claims since March 3 — and the amount of staff to handle them. The labor department and its call center vendor have been adding staff as quickly as possible, she said, and are in the process of hiring and training 300 additional agents to answer phone calls.
Ocean City summer case count unclear
Considering the unusual circumstances, Ocean City tourism and hospitality fared well over the summer season, officials said. But the extent of the summer vacation spot’s propensity for COVID-19 outbreaks remains unclear.
Data shows spikes in the beach town and surrounding ZIP codes' testing positivity rates in June, July, August and September and a large jump in overall cases in the two week period after the July Fourth weekend. But those figures only capture those who live in Ocean City, not those who traveled there, meaning the metrics might only touch on a small portion of those affected.
The jumps could be attributed to general lifts in restrictions rather than specific outbreaks. Notably, Worcester County Health Department spokesman Travis Brown said local hospitals did not reach or get over capacity as a result of COVID-19 infections.
As for the business community, some were able to recoup their early losses from this year. The season fluctuated due to out-of-state travel advisories.
Majority of Marylanders approve of Hogan’s COVID-19 response
An overwhelming majority of Maryland residents, 82%, approve of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s response to the public health crisis, with about half of those surveyed saying they “strongly approve,” according to a newly released Goucher College Poll.
This result comes as national polling data shows a majority of people disapproving of President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The two Republicans have sparred throughout much of the pandemic over how best to respond.
Hogan earned early, bipartisan praise for his decisions during the first months of the pandemic. He declared a state of emergency in Maryland more than a week before Trump did the same for the country, and was the first governor to shut down schools. He also closed senior centers and bars ahead of most other states.
Democratic respondents were more likely than Republicans to approve of Hogan’s approach to the public health crisis, a dynamic likely connected to a partisan divide over how quickly and broadly to reopen the state’s economy. Nearly a third of Republicans believe the state loosened restrictions too slowly. Meanwhile, roughly a third of Democrats say Maryland is reopening too quickly.
Baltimore Teachers Union urges parents to keep kids home
After the Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises said schools would reopen to a select group of students in mid-November, the Baltimore Teachers Union shot down the plan, saying it did not trust administrators to adhere to their suggested guidelines and urging parents to keep their kids at home.
The union suggested reopening schoolhouses no sooner than late January.
The cost of virtual learning has been devastating to an unknown number of students who have not received any form of education since March. Many lack the internet capabilities to keep up with their studies while others lack technology, computer skills and safe environments in which to learn.
But the teachers union said nothing costs more than human life, which they said could be at risk if exposed to the virus.
“What we know is the buildings are not safe for our staff or students to be in at this time,” said Diamonte Brown, the president of the BTU.
Brown said the union “is prepared to take actions to continue to fight for the lives our our students and staff,” but would not give details about what actions they might take to try to prevent schools from reopening.
The school system issued a statement Thursday saying that it would provide in-person options for learning to small groups of students and will give parents the option to have their children continue to learn online.
Restaurateurs pivot to new ventures
The food industry has had to adjust to the public health emergency in once-unthinkable ways, cutting down on staff, using communal “ghost” kitchens and selling more than just meals to stay afloat. Instead of trying to reinvent themselves or their brands, some have left the restaurant industry completely.
Chefs, bartenders, owners and servers told The Sun that the pandemic gave them rare time to reflect on the downsides of the job, including its long hours and relentless demands. But it has also changed the reality of restaurant work, making it more physically dangerous and more volatile.
Employment rates for hospitality workers in the Baltimore area plummeted in April, following Hogan’s executive order shutting down on-premises dining. With eateries now able to reopen, some of those lost jobs have returned, says Erin E. Delaney, economist with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In August, there were 116,500 nonfarm payroll employees within the hospitality and leisure industry, according to preliminary data, well below a peak of 147,500 in June of last year. By August, the sector had rebounded to about 80% of what it was a year ago.
Some early forecasts predict that half of all U.S. restaurants might close due to the pandemic.
Baltimore Sun reporters Jean Marbella, Christine Condon, Talia Richman, Liz Bowie and Christina Tkacik contributed to this article.