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Ocean City to require masks on the boardwalk during certain hours as coronavirus cases rise

Masks will be required on the Ocean City boardwalk between the hours of 8 a.m. and 2 a.m. and during special events — the latest measure announced in Maryland to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The rules went into effect at 5 p.m. Friday, according to a declaration signed by Mayor Rick Meehan after two hours of discussion in a virtual City Council meeting Friday. The rules expand upon Gov. Larry Hogan’s latest statewide order, which requires masks to be worn by everyone over age 5 in all public buildings and outdoors wherever social distancing isn’t possible.

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A related City Council ordinance to lower the penalty to a municipal infraction from a misdemeanor, the penalty in the governor’s order, was voted down 4-2 by the six-member council.

“There are people who are afraid to go on the boardwalk because not everybody’s wearing a mask,” Meehan said. “I do believe that [the declaration] sends a message to everyone. ... Not a message of fear, but a message of safety.”

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While the number of cases of COVID-19 in Worcester County, where Ocean City is located, remain a fraction of those in other Maryland counties, they have increased recently as people have flocked to the beach to escape months of lockdown monotony.

The mayor’s move Friday brings Ocean City’s boardwalk mask rule in line with the one in nearby Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where masks are required on streets, sidewalks, the boardwalk and inside businesses within city limits.

Much of the City Council discussion Friday focused on the difficulty of enforcing a masking rule on the entire 3-mile-long boardwalk, the question of whether masks could or should be required in certain pedestrian-heavy times or zones, and the manner — and optics — of how police approach tourists who aren’t wearing masks.

The mayor and council agreed that they wanted police to take an educational, rather than punitive, approach to noncompliance, reminding boardwalk visitors of the rule and offering masks to people who don’t have them.

Councilman John Gehrig Jr., who voted against the ordinance to lower the penalty, called the masking rule “an enforcement nightmare.”

“Education needs to be the initiative,” he said. “I don’t want a bunch of tickets being written if we can avoid it at all costs. We need to carry masks, period.”

Ocean City Police Chief Ross C. Buzzuro and Councilman Mark L. Paddack, who is a police officer, cautioned of the public-relations catastrophe for the resort town that could follow a viral video of an arrest stemming from people refusing to wear a mask or leave the boardwalk.

“Whenever we take action on the boardwalk, the rule of thumb is we’re being videoed,” Buzzuro said. “I want you all to realize it all works fine if everybody is in compliance. As we know, there are individuals that are not going to want to comply with us. Once we engage, we’re not going to back off.”

The mayor countered that “all eyes are on us” as crowds continue to flock to the beach town despite the pandemic, and he worries more about people having a misconception that “Ocean City doesn’t care about safety, they only care about the money.”

“The worst publicity is all the pictures of everybody not wearing masks, standing on top of each other,” Meehan said.

Councilman Dennis Dare agreed, saying the bigger risk would be for Ocean City not to take action and allow an outbreak to happen that could lead to even more restrictions.

“We’re in the spotlight,” Dare said. “Everybody’s looking at beach resorts right now, and the ones around us have already done what we’re contemplating today. ... Either we take this little step here and do our part to help, or take the bigger risk.”

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Exceptions to the masking rule include: “a bona fide disability or medical condition,” communicating with people who are hearing-impaired, exposing workers to unsafe working conditions, consuming food or beverages and engaging in physical activity “where the use ... is likely to pose a bona fide safety risk.”

Limiting the masking restriction to the hours of 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. was a suggestion by Council Secretary Mary Knight, who noted that early-morning walkers like her use the boardwalk and are able to socially distance appropriately long before it becomes crowded. She requested extending it beyond midnight to account for bargoers.

Councilmen Tony DeLuca, Matt James, Gehrig and Paddack voted against the ordinance to lower the penalty, while Council members Dare and Knight voted for it.

The declaration lasts 30 days, after which point it would need to be renewed or expire.

“I think this is the right thing to do,” Meehan said. “I believe this is the right direction to go.”

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