Maryland’s public schools will close Monday for the next two weeks, state officials announced Thursday, a day when efforts to halt the spread of the new coronavirus took on added urgency and promised to upend daily life.
The extraordinary closing of the state’s schools, which will send about 1 million children home and create ripple effects as parents scramble to find alternative care and adjust their work schedules, are part of a sweeping set of directives from Gov. Larry Hogan.
Acting in the wake of Maryland’s first case of the virus spreading within the community rather than from travel, Hogan directed senior centers to close and prohibited gatherings of more than 250 people. He closed the cruise ship terminal at the Port of Baltimore and activated the National Guard. Hogan’s also ordered nonessential state employees to telework if possible, hospitals to adopt new visitor policies, and state prisons to suspend all visits.
The steps may sound extreme “but they could be the difference in saving lives and keeping people safe,” he said.
Maryland, Ohio, Michigan and Oregon became the first states to close all public schools.
Every closure seemed to beget additional closures. Hogan urged private schools to also close, and the Baltimore Archdiocese opted to close its schools for the same March 16-27 span.
Meanwhile, the Right Rev. Eugene Taylor, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, shut down public worship services beginning this Sunday and through March 27.
Judges also postponed trials in the state’s courts as well as federal district court. All civil and criminal jury trials scheduled to begin March 16 through April 3 in state courts were suspended. Federal trials in Maryland were postponed immediately through April 24, with the chief judge citing the reduced availability of jurors, counsel and court staff in issuing his order.
Housing evictions in Baltimore also were halted Thursday until classes resume “to allow people to remain in their homes while schools and many other government buildings are closed,” Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said in a statement.
Despite all the upheaval, Hogan said “daily life as we know it” should not come to a halt. He urged grocery stores, restaurants and gas stations to remain open.
Addressing Maryland residents directly, he said, “We are all in this together, and we cannot stop the spread of this virus without each and every one of you doing your part.”
This will be a spring like no other, as much of what normally heralds the end of winter has been canceled or delayed.
Orioles fans who planned to go to Opening Day at Camden Yards on March 26 will have to wait at least two weeks after Major League Baseball delayed the start of the season. Bracket-fillers won’t have a March Madness, college basketball’s championship, this year. St. Patrick’s Day parades in Baltimore and elsewhere are canceled, as is the Boston Marathon.
It was hard to keep up with the rapid-fire announcements from venues and organizations closing their doors or canceling events to help quell the spread of the virus. The Maryland Jockey Club closed Laurel Park, Pimlico Race Course and Rosecroft Raceway to the public. The Enoch Pratt Free Library canceled all events, though it said it would remain open during its regular hours.
“This is a public health emergency, and it is one with a coordinated response,” said Fran Phillips, Maryland deputy secretary of health. “This is an extraordinary time. The measures being taken have been considered seriously."
Earlier Thursday, the state reported its first case of the coronavirus unrelated to travel, indicating that COVID-19 is spreading from person to person in the community. A man in his 60s in Prince George’s County tested positive for the virus Wednesday and is hospitalized. He had no known recent exposure to the pathogen through travel or contact with a person who was known to be infected, officials said.
Such spreading of a disease is known as community transmission. It can be an indication that there are more cases of an illness than health officials have confirmed, such as in Washington state, where the novel coronavirus spread undetected for weeks and where most of the U.S. deaths from COVID-19 have occurred.
“While not unexpected, the news of community transmission in Maryland emphasizes the urgency of everyone doing their part to reduce the spread of the virus," said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement in the Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health and a former state health secretary. "This is not a drill.”
The Prince George’s man is one of 12 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Maryland. The other Maryland cases are linked to a Nile River cruise ship in Egypt as well as travel to places including Albania, Spain and Boston.
The closing of schools promises to be the most disruptive to daily life, particularly for parents unable to work remotely. And, in some cases — about 100,000 in Baltimore city and county alone — families rely on schools for one or two meals a day.
The state can apply for a waiver from federal rules that would allow them to establish feeding centers where students could get “grab and go” meals.
The last time in recent memory that public schools were closed for other than a weather event was on Sept. 11, 2001, when parents rushed to their children’s schools after the terrorist attacks. Schools in Baltimore also closed after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
Karen Salmon, the state schools superintendent, said it was critical to close schools from Monday through March 27.
“It is crucial that we take immediate measures to slow the spread of COVID-19,” she said.
All schools and buses will be cleaned, Salmon said, and officials are working to develop a plan to provide meals to kids who need them.
Currently, there are 128,343 cases of the respiratory disease worldwide, and 4,720 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. In the U.S., there have been 1,663 cases and 40 deaths.
Symptoms include fever, coughing and shortness of breath. Most people experience mild symptoms, like a bad cold, but it becomes more serious in about 20% of cases and can progress into pneumonia and require hospitalization.
The threat of the disease spreading will continue to prompt changes.
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Asked about upcoming primary election April 28, Hogan said he planned to address that “in the coming days.”
Hogan was surrounded by legislative, education and medical leaders as he announced the school closure and other directives, and they voiced their support.
Dr. David Marcozzi, a University of Maryland School of Medicine associate professor, said that “putting aggressive steps in place" can help stop the spread of the virus.
Dr. Stephen R. T. Evans, executive vice president for medical affairs and chief medical officer for MedStar Health, said that while we’re in a “fluid and volatile” time, hospitals are working on plans to manage the expected growing number of coronavirus patients and keeping staff safe.
“Marylanders, we are a tough group, and these are very, very difficult times," he said. "So we must keep all of our health care workers safe so they are able to take care of all of our patients.
“We know that there will be increases in the numbers of these patients,” Evans said.
Baltimore Sun reporters Meredith Cohn and Scott Dance contributed to this article.