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Gov. Hogan criticizes Baltimore’s reopening pace, calls retail restrictions ‘absolutely absurd’

Beth Hawks, owner of Zelda Zen in Fells Point, is upset that Baltimore City hasn't lifted its restrictions on in-person retail.
Beth Hawks, owner of Zelda Zen in Fells Point, is upset that Baltimore City hasn't lifted its restrictions on in-person retail. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

Gov. Larry Hogan chastised Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young on Wednesday for his pace in reopening the city from the coronavirus pandemic, saying it was “absolutely absurd” that small retail hasn’t been allowed to resume in-store operations.

Baltimore City still doesn’t allow non-essential retail shops to be open, even though shops are open in much of the state at 50% capacity under the Republican governor’s recovery plan.

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During a news conference Wednesday, Hogan outlined a new timeline for lifting statewide restrictions on indoor dining, gyms, casinos and malls. Like in previous phases of his recovery plan, local leaders can decide whether to adopt the guidelines.

“I think it’s absolutely absurd that there are thousands of people gathering in the streets and yet a small business in Baltimore can’t open their doors,” Hogan said. “I think Jack Young should let those small retail shops open. They should’ve been open a long time ago."

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City officials are mindful that the coronavirus has had a disproportionate impact on people of color, and the city is about 60% black, said Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, a Democrat.

“What works in some other portions of the state are not necessarily going to work in Baltimore City,” Davis said.

“We all want to get back to a little bit of normal. At the end of the day, science and medicine has to be our guiding post and the governor has gotten away from that a little bit.”

Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said last week that it would be “reckless” to move the city to phase two too quickly.

“We could see spikes with the protests, so we want to be able to monitor the data closely in phase one before we consider moving on to phase two," Dzirasa said.

Hogan said he doesn’t believe Baltimore has an excuse to not reopen further, but acknowledged jurisdictions have the legal authority to set their own timelines.

While the governor’s plan allows most businesses deemed nonessential to resume, Young’s three-stage reopening plan has taken a more conservative pace.

Baltimore barbershops and hair salons, camps, child care and outdoor religious services are allowed to resume with limitations, while limited capacity retail and indoor religious services remain prohibited.

“I think we might have a little chat with Mayor Young to see if he can move things along,” Hogan said.

In Fells Point, some brick-and-mortar retailers say the city’s easements unfairly omit them, despite having less contact with patrons than a barber shop or salon.

On Wednesday, Beth Hawks taped four calendars for months March through June in the window of her boutique Zelda Zen on Thames Street. She had crossed 87 days with a black ex, denoting time passed since her small business had closed.

“It’s just been unfair," Hawks said. “Why are we at the bottom of the totem pole? That’s what I’m shocked about.”

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The retailer says she is among several Fells Point shop owners who’ve struggled to pay their bills during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Zelda Zen has one entry point with three signs posted that require customers to wear masks and practice social distancing. Many of the wares such as candles and soaps are tucked in plastic baggies. And a neighboring business owner has fashioned a plexiglass shield for Hawks’ register.

Hawks believes she can ensure her customers practice social distancing inside the 400-square-foot space better than at a large box store like Walmart, where she bought the calendar for her storefront window.

Nick Johnson, who owns the Su Casa furniture and home decor store on Bond Street, said he initially understood the restrictions but fears revenue is pouring out of Baltimore as surrounding jurisdictions continue to reopen faster than the city.

Johnson has been sending Baltimore customers to his Su Casa storefronts in Ellicott City and Delaware.

“We’re exceeding all of the health guidelines for retail in all three of our other locations,” he said. “We’re willing to continue doing more than that in Baltimore City and we’re just not allowed and it doesn’t make sense.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Wilborn P. Nobles III contributed to this article.

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