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Coronavirus in Maryland: Five takeaways from the week

A reader asked: Can I visit my significant other during the stay at home order if we don’t live together? Baltimore Sun reporter Hallie Miller answers.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan planned to launch the first phase of his administration’s reopening plan Friday, lifting some restrictions on retailers, salons and houses of worship.

The state’s existing stay-at-home order will give way to a “Safer at Home” advisory, which does not enforce state residents to keep to their homes except for essential outings, but recommends they do so.

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The Republican governor cited a 14-day decrease in coronavirus-related hospitalizations as evidence of the state’s readiness to reopen some businesses. But state data shows a slight uptick in the number of patients requiring intensive care compared to two weeks ago.

To keep Marylanders up to date with the week’s most pressing takeaways, here are five key points from The Baltimore Sun’s coronavirus coverage.

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Reopening begins

Hogan has said, repeatedly, that his administration must tackle two simultaneous crises: the public health emergency and the state’s ensuing economic fallout. As a business owner, he said last week that he feels especially liable for the thousands of Marylanders who are unemployed and suffering economic hardship.

The amendment to the order allows for manufacturing to resume and certain retailers to open at 50% capacity, though some retailers said they weren’t entirely clear what that meant. The guideline prohibiting gatherings of 10 people or larger is still in place — though notably not for religious or spiritual facilities, which are also allowed to operate at 50% capacity. The advisory encourages curbside pickup when possible at stores and employees to work from home when possible.

Some have already voiced concerns about Maryland’s inadequate testing capacity and personal protective gear stock at places such as hospitals and nursing homes. Now, more offices, manufacturers and shops will enter into the equation.

Meanwhile, the governor has not lifted the limitations on sit-down restaurants, bars, school buildings or concerts and sporting events. The limitations will progress as the state’s reported figures continue to decline — and could be reimposed if they escalate.

Local leaders voice uneasiness about Hogan’s decisions

The governor’s amendment specifies that local governments can work to reopen businesses and operations in their counties at a slower pace than that of the state. And some local leaders said they were surprised by the extent of Hogan’s order, and believe it’s too soon to roll back restrictions. Officials in jurisdictions like Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — said they would, in fact, take longer to lift their stay-at-home orders.

Even Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, a Republican, said while his constituents were “ready to go,” he would not outpace the governor’s amendment out of an excess of caution.

Public health experts and medical professionals also vocalized concerns about the speed of Hogan’s plan, which was to go into effect at 5 p.m. Friday.

“My concern is whether we have the public health infrastructure — the testing, contact tracing and isolation capacity — to take these steps,” said Dr. Leana Wen said, a former Baltimore health commissioner and current George Washington University professor. “If we don’t, then going to phase one is a recipe for failure, with the certainty of new infections and another round of lockdowns.”

Learning from data on ethnicity, ZIP codes

Coronavirus cases by ZIP code
(Baltimore Sun staff)

Since the state has made ZIP code data available, districts in Prince George’s County, Montgomery County and Baltimore City have emerged as “hotspots" for COVID-19. But further examining this data reveals several factors, aside from geography, that could explain the high concentration in these areas.

In Baltimore’s 21215, for example, the majority black district also houses a nursing home, where a COVID-19 outbreak accounted for nearly half of its total cases. Health disparities within the district could also influence the case count, as officials said many of the residents in this area work in essential jobs and cannot afford to stay home, or simply do not have access to medical care.

Community leaders and elected officials in these areas have banded together to try to reduce the impact of the virus in 21215. Their efforts illustrate that a full understanding of who lives in each hard-hit ZIP code is necessary to address underlying risk factors behind the infections.

Meanwhile, the city’s Latino and Hispanic communities comprise nearly a fifth of all known infections in the state, despite making up just 10% of the population, according to U.S. census data. Experts said this proves especially troubling since undocumented Latinos and Hispanics often lack health insurance and might not seek out hospital care out of fear. These groups make up much of the essential workforce in the state and the country and might not have the means to stay at home to the fullest extent possible.

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Due to language barriers, city officials have expressed concerns that Latinos and Hispanics may not have equal access to information as other racial and ethnic groups. Food security might also affect them disproportionately as they become sick and miss their paychecks.

Woes continue for small businesses and unemployed

Only a fraction of Maryland’s announced $175 million for small business relief has been doled out so far, about seven weeks since Hogan publicized the grant and loan funds.

About 20% of the available grant money and 5% of the loans have been disbursed, and the state’s commerce department said it has stopped accepting new applications. This has devastated many businesses who need aid to stay open or deliver services in limited capacity.

The Maryland Department of Commerce, meanwhile, has not revealed any information regarding the recipients of the grant and loan funding. State lawmakers such as Baltimore County Sen. Shelly Hettleman, a Democrat, said Maryland must be transparent to ensure that a diversity of small, family-owned businesses get the cash.

In a letter, Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz said delays occurred because the department needed to create a new division made up of volunteers and to make sure it did not approve more applications than funds could cover. Also, many applications were incomplete and lacked necessary documentation, she said.

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Meanwhile, problems continue for the tens of thousands of Marylanders who have filed for unemployment during the pandemic. Hundreds of them signed up to vent their frustrations during a virtual state Senate hearing about the unemployment insurance system.

Workers described the process as “soul-crushing,” recounting hours on the phone trying to get answers. Many said they have yet to receive benefits.

In the absence of door-knocking, the mayor’s race heats up virtually

The coronavirus pandemic dashed all hope of political hopefuls’ ability to run a traditional, on-the-ground campaign. Much of the action has instead taken place virtually.

Mayoral candidate Mary Miller, for example, defended herself after a divisive email leaked from a political action committee supporting her that described a conscious targeting of white voters. Sixty-three percent of Baltimore’s population identifies as black.

She disavowed the email and the strategy, claiming, “that’s not who I am."

The email said the PAC aimed to peel voters away from former deputy attorney general Thiru Vignarajah and City Council President Brandon Scott, referred to as Miller’s chief rivals for the Democratic nomination.

When asked about the group’s efforts to appeal to just a fraction of city residents, Martin G. Knott Jr., treasurer for the Citizens for Ethical Progressive Leadership PAC apologized, calling the email “poorly worded.”

There was also a televised, virtual debate this week between six of the mayoral candidates, during which they sparred over their various qualifications, past choices and experience levels.

The primary election takes place June 2. City residents can vote by mail or at a few in-person locations.

Baltimore Sun reporters Pamela Wood, Luke Broadwater, Talia Richman, Thalia Juarez, Lillian Reed, Alison Knezevich, Lorraine Mirabella and Daniel Oyefusi contributed to this article.

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