As the deadly coronavirus pandemic spread into Maryland in March, Gov. Larry Hogan’s decisions to swiftly shut down schools and businesses won bipartisan applause from a scared public desperate for leadership.
A month later, in a celebrated coup, the governor secured 500,000 much-needed COVID-19 tests from South Korea, landing him on another round of national TV programs.
But in recent days, some who once praised Hogan’s leadership have criticized the state’s response to the pandemic. Problems have mounted on several fronts ― most notably, a balky unemployment website that’s frustrating thousands of workers who lost their jobs amid Hogan’s shutdown orders.
“This system nearly killed me and other people ― thousands ― through stress,” one unemployed man, Will Thomas of Reisterstown, testified Tuesday before a virtual hearing of state lawmakers. Thomas called those running the state’s unemployment system “incompetent” and an “embarrassment.”
Among more than 1,000 frustrated Marylanders who signed up to testify about their struggles to receive benefits, Thomas described losing sleep and feeling his blood pressure spike as he spent 10 hours a day repeatedly getting kicked off the state’s site.
Then he watched Hogan claim at a news conference that the unemployment website was “completely fixed and functioning very well," before joking with a reporter about reopening golf courses. The comments left Thomas enraged.
“The governor makes jokes with a reporter after saying the system works and has been fixed?” he asked incredulously.
About one in five working Marylanders has filed for unemployment benefits since the outbreak. Of those, tens of thousands of Maryland residents report getting stuck in the unemployment system.
But the failings of the state’s overwhelmed unemployment system aren’t the only problems the Hogan administration is encountering.
Many small businesses haven’t gotten their promised state aid. A botched contract to buy masks and ventilators from a politically connected company drew national headlines. Questions linger about Hogan’s much-touted purchase of half a million coronavirus tests from South Korea and whether they’re being deployed efficiently.
And, while dozens of Marylanders continue to die each day from the pandemic ― including about 1,000 deaths at nursing homes ― many residents are debating the wisdom of Hogan’s decision to begin a phased-in reopening of the state Friday.
Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, was among those initially supportive of the Republican governor’s performance. But that was before he watched some important state systems fail.
“The governor is in a very challenging position that nobody could have expected and nobody asks for,” Ferguson said. “As the pressure has built around the politics and the management of the crisis, I have concerns I didn’t have previously. About 135,000 unemployed Marylanders are still in the adjudication process. Hearing the governor say the system is fixed while it’s not does nothing but perpetuate the problem.”
Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said state officials are working hard to address the problems of the pandemic, which has overwhelmed the normal operations of government.
Despite a rocky start, Ricci said Maryland is now the only state in the country with a comprehensive system for unemployment claims that allows users to collect both regular unemployment benefits and new enhanced federal benefits in one place. He noted nearly 330,000 Marylanders have received their unemployment benefits.
“We are all dealing with an unprecedented situation, doing things in days that would normally take weeks, and in weeks that would normally take months,” Ricci said. “Our job is to tune out the politics, and focus on helping as many people as possible as fast as possible.”
Many questions also remain about how well the state is ramping up testing and why more of the 500,000 tests the Hogan administration bought for more than $9 million from South Korea haven’t been deployed.
The Rev. Bruce Lewandowski, pastor of Southeast Baltimore’s Sacred Heart of Jesus congregation, recently hosted a coronavirus testing site with Johns Hopkins Hospital and the city of Baltimore. A line of more than 400 people formed, but the church testing site had only about 200 tests available.
“We need to find out what happened to the 500,000 tests,” Lewandowski said. “We’re a hot spot for the virus. We have a lot of sick people show up and they should get a test.”
Lewandowski said without widespread testing, he won’t feel comfortable reopening his church.
“We’re telling people to still stay home. We are telling people to have church online,” he said.
Patrick Moran, head of the largest union for state employees, said he is not surprised that Hogan seems to be struggling in some areas. The American Federal of State, County and Municipal Employees has long criticized the governor for what it says is his understaffing and underfunding of state agencies.
Moran said Hogan clearly has a savvy media strategy that landed him rosy interviews on cable TV.
At the same time, the state has been slow to provide masks, gloves and other equipment to state employees who work in prisons, hospitals and juvenile justice center, Moran said.
“Things are only addressed when it becomes an embarrassment. I think that is poor leadership. It’s governing by news release,” Moran said.
Hogan is also catching flak from both sides of the debate over how quickly the state should lift restrictions on businesses and gatherings. The governor on Friday lifted the state’s stay-at-home order allowing manufacturing, retail, haircuts and worship services to resume with limitations.
But that wasn’t enough for protesters who want the governor to immediately lift all restrictions. More than 100 people gathered at State Circle in Annapolis Friday afternoon — some carrying signs that said “Heil Hogan” and “Lock up the tyrant” — to protest coronavirus lockdown measures hours before the state’s gradual reopening was set to begin.
Meanwhile, Dr. Tom Inglesby, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an adviser to the governor, endorsed some of Hogan’s reopening plans, but not others.
Inglesby said he was concerned about reopening indoor religious services and barbershops and hair salons.
“I think reopening churches at this point seems to be too high risk," he said.
The governor said this week he is trying to take a middle-of-the-road approach to reopening that tries to keep people safe from the virus while helping the unemployed.
“Some people think we’re moving too fast and some people think we’re moving too slow, so it’s probably the right move,” Hogan said.
Small business owner Donna Sita, a longtime Democrat, said she has nothing but praise for how Hogan is handling the pandemic.
Sita owns Divine Details, selling vintage and artisan goods at her own shop in Millersville and at an antiques shop in Gambrills.
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“I have respected Governor Hogan’s leadership so much,” Sita said. “First of all, he’s about the facts. It’s not so political, like everything that I’m listening to.”
State Sen. J.B. Jennings, a Republican who represents Baltimore and Harford counties, said the state is doing its best to respond to a constantly changing situation. Jennings said many tend to focus on the problems with the unemployment system, but never mention how hundreds of thousands of claims were successfully processed.
“The governor did what he had to do in March,” Jennings said of shutting down businesses. “Now, treatment has gotten better. We’ve realized it’s bad, but not as bad as it seems. We, as people, now know what social distancing is. Without a doubt, it was the right move to begin reopening."
Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said she believes Hogan is attempting to accommodate public opinion that’s largely in favor of restrictions but has a vocal minority opposed to restrictions.
“There is also a point where people are getting increasingly worried about the economic impacts but still really worried about the public health implications,” Kromer said. “This creates a difficult environment for any leader.”
As the pandemic stretches from days to weeks to months, a sense of bipartisan solidarity starts to wane, she added.
“At first, there’s always a rally around the flag. Next, there’s a reality that starts to set in,” Kromer said. “It’s a hard thing to keep people happy at this stage of the game.”