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Maryland Gov. Hogan urges crackdown on bars and restaurants as coronavirus cases surge among young people

With cases surging among young adults in Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan is pressing local health officials to more strictly enforce regulations aimed at bars and restaurants.

More than 100 new cases per day have been reported among people ages 20 to 29 in Maryland over the past week, according to an analysis of state data by The Baltimore Sun.

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Hogan sounded a warning about other states, such as California, Florida and Texas, that have re-closed bars and restaurants as COVID-19 cases spike.

“We do not want to be forced to take the same action here in Maryland,” the Republican governor wrote.

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In his letter, Hogan called on local health departments, local liquor boards and inspectors, and local law enforcement agencies to warn, fine and even shutter businesses that are “flagrantly violating the law and endangering public health.”

“An increasing number of COVID-19 cases have been connected to non-compliance with public health requirements particularly in bars and restaurants,” Hogan wrote in a letter to county leaders Tuesday. “We cannot allow a small segment of willful violators to squander the collective efforts of the overwhelming majority of Maryland citizens and businesses.”

More than half of Maryland’s 733 new coronavirus cases Tuesday — the most in one day since early June — were among people less than 40 years old. In addition, people under 35 have a testing positivity rate 84% higher than those above 35, according to Hogan’s letter.

Crystal Watson, a senior scholar with Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security, said Tuesday’s numbers are yet another indication that indoor dining is particularly risky when it comes to the spread of the virus.

“It’s one thing to go into a shop and walk around for a few minutes and maybe walk within six feet of someone, but if you’re sitting there for 45 minutes, an hour, 90 minutes, I think it’s a higher risk than I am personally willing to accept,” she said.

Based on Maryland Department of Health directives, bars and restaurants are permitted to offer seating indoors and outdoors with physical distancing and capacity restrictions. Only seated service is permitted and congregation in bar areas is prohibited. All employees must wear masks, and no more than six people may sit at any one table.

Hogan’s stern words come amid news of Maryland restaurants shuttering after employees tested positive for COVID-19.

In Baltimore’s Canton neighborhood, for instance, at least 10 eateries have had to temporarily close down after announcing positive tests. Canton’s ZIP code — 21224 — has the third highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state, and it’s home to plenty of young people. The median age there is 33.

Several of those restaurants have since reopened.

The enforcement that Hogan calls for is already taking place to some extent, local officials said, whether through the issuance of violations or education efforts for businesses not complying with regulations.

Thomas Akras, the deputy executive secretary for Baltimore City’s Board of Liquor License Commissioners, said its enforcement efforts are focused on the issue.

“We have really shifted all of our enforcement resources to ensuring that licensed establishments are complying with the governor’s executive orders,” Akras said.

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The board has modified the schedule for inspectors to ensure more were available later at night to respond to 311 calls and conduct inspections.

Some establishments have been issued violations for not complying with the governor’s orders, Akras said, and their cases likely will be heard by the board in August.

In Baltimore County, officials have received hundreds of complaints from citizens with regard to social distancing and other concerns in restaurants, parks and other public places, said county spokesman Sean Naron. When it comes to restaurants, the county has responded with a “primarily education-based approach,” Naron said.

Harford County officials said they weren’t aware of any habitual offenders of the governor’s order. Molly Mraz, the county’s health department spokesperson, said the agency plans to continue with the enforcement model it has adopted.

“Our process begins with education, then if we get another complaint, a visit, an order for compliance if they do not comply, and then an order for closure would be the final step,” Mraz said.

Howard County has not closed, fined or issued official warnings to businesses as of Tuesday, according to Lisa DeHernandez, a health department spokeswoman. The county has, however, responded to complaints of possible non-compliance, she said, but in all cases the businesses resolved the problems with the county and no further actions were necessary.

Baltimore Sun Media reporters Ana Faguy and James Whitlow contributed to this article.

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