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Baltimore-area leaders still deciding whether to leave coronavirus restrictions in place

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young at an announcement in December. Olszewski and Young both say they need more time to consider Gov. Larry Hogan's plan to lift coronavirus restrictions Friday.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young at an announcement in December. Olszewski and Young both say they need more time to consider Gov. Larry Hogan's plan to lift coronavirus restrictions Friday. (Amy Davis)

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. are reviewing Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to lift the state’s stay-at-home order, saying Wednesday evening they need time to decide how to reopen while protecting public health.

The two Democrats were among Baltimore-area leaders who expressed concern that the region isn’t ready yet to relax certain restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic. They said the region still needs more personal protective equipment, testing and contact tracing capacity.

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In a joint statement, Young and Olszewski said they would “determine our next steps in the next 24 hours.” The city and county are among the hardest hit in the state with infections.

“Individuals and businesses continue to make real sacrifices, and those sacrifices are preventing the spread of a deadly virus,” said Young and Olszewski. “However, rushing to reopen in our large, densely populated jurisdictions jeopardizes the lives of our neighbors and loved ones.”

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Under the plans that Hogan, a Republican, unveiled Wednesday, manufacturing, retail, haircuts and worship services may resume with certain limitations beginning at 5 p.m. Friday. But he said his plan “empowers individual county leaders to make decisions regarding Stage One reopenings in their jurisdictions.”

The governor’s announcement immediately sent Young and neighboring counties executives to the drawing board to figure out a way forward that they deem safe, said Lester Davis, the mayor’s spokesman.

“The Baltimore region is still hit pretty hard,” Davis said. “Now is not the time to throw a party and start relaxing. There’s some difficult conversations that have to be had.”

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, a Democrat, said the governor’s announcement “was more than we expected.”

Pittman said he would not commit to adopting any of the new permissions until Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman completes a careful assessment. The decision on which restrictions will be lifted in Anne Arundel County will be announced in the coming days, Pittman said.

At a virtual town hall Wednesday evening, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said that while testing capacity has increased, only 2% of the county population has been tested and there has not been a decrease in the county’s hospitalization rate in past 14 days.

“We do not have the building blocks in place that the governor has outlined in Stage One for reopening,” said Ball, a Democrat.

It’s taken a lot of work and public education campaigns to spread the message in Baltimore that social distancing and wearing a mask is important, Davis said.

“It’s difficult when you’ve taken weeks and months to condition folks to behave a certain kind of way that goes counter to human nature in pursuit of trying to save lives and then you reverse course on a dime,” he said.

Hogan said at a press conference he understands that not all counties are in the same situations with the rate of infections, hospitals and deaths. He acknowledged that leaders in the state’s two most populous counties, Prince George’s and Montgomery, said they would leave restrictions in place.

In less dense Harford County, Executive Barry Glassman, a Republican, said the county will open as much as allowable. He said that of those localities with 500 or more confirmed cases, Harford has the lowest number of cases and deaths per capita.

"We feel like we are ready to reopen, and I will instruct our folks to go ahead and begin that process,” Glassman said. "I think it’s a good start ... We have to start somewhere.”

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Though Democrats lead the Baltimore-area counties still considering when to reopen, Glassman said he didn’t think the process had been politicized.

“We are from different parties and so forth," he said, "but on this one, I think, it is based on where we are and our numbers.”

Carroll County Board of Commissioners President Stephen Wantz said he is comfortable with the governor’s plan. The Carroll County board will discuss lifting restrictions Thursday.

“Based upon our numbers and the actions of our citizens, we’re ready," said Wantz, a Republican. “Carroll County is ready to go.”

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Ana Faguy, Mary Grace Keller, Talia Richman, Olivia Sanchez, Pamela Wood and James Whitlow contributed to this article.

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