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Baltimore City, counties review Maryland governor’s order to ease COVID restrictions

Officials in Baltimore and several Maryland counties spent much of Wednesday scrambling to rework potential new local coronavirus rules following Gov. Larry Hogan’s announcement that most statewide restrictions will loosen significantly at the end of the week.

Most Maryland residents already are following a stricter set of restrictions than Hogan’s statewide mandate because Baltimore City and several of the state’s biggest counties — Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George’s — previously issued their own restrictions. Most leaders appeared keen to keep setting local regulations, even with some easing on their part, after statewide rules relax at 5 p.m. Friday.

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What those new rules will be remained under discussion in several jurisdictions, however. That’s in part because the Republican governor’s executive order Tuesday threw them a curveball by scrapping language from previous edicts that allowed local leaders to set tighter rules to help “save lives or prevent exposure to COVID.”

Legal experts, including top lawyers on Hogan’s staff, largely agreed that Maryland law gives counties and cities considerable emergency public health powers to issue coronavirus restrictions, even without the governor’s permission. The shifting legal basis, however, means the city of Baltimore and other local governments may need to revise their orders.

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And any changes could invite a fresh round of legal challenges from some business owners who have chafed at public health orders that damaged their bottom lines. Previous lawsuits seeking to overturn Hogan’s statewide mandates and tighter local rules in several counties have failed.

Much of the rest of the state appeared set to follow the governor’s lead, including Carroll and Harford counties. Under Hogan’s revised rules, restaurants and bars can open at full capacity, indoors and out, as long as patrons stay seated and maintain social distance. So, too, will gyms, houses of worship and shops. Bigger venues in those areas — such as theaters, concert halls, arenas, racetracks and stadiums — can open at up to 50% capacity.

The governor’s move sets Maryland apart from many of its Mid-Atlantic neighbors, which have retained capacity restrictions or curfews for bars, restaurants, shops and other establishments. West Virginia was an exception: it lifted remaining capacity restrictions last week, while keeping a mask mandate.

In Virginia, for example, there’s a midnight curfew for bars and restaurants, and limits on party size. Gyms are held to 75% capacity. In New York and New Jersey, indoor dining at bars and restaurants is capped at 75% and 50%, respectively.

Hogan’s decision came just before St. Patrick’s Day festivities March 17 and with the Baltimore Orioles home opener slated for April 8 and a possible running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore in mid-May.

The Republican governor cited dropping coronavirus case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths in easing statewide rules.

He urged local leaders to “get in line” with his relaxed directives at a Tuesday news conference, even as he said they still had the power to follow a more cautious course.

The Hogan administration didn’t consult with Baltimore City Hall or county leaders or give them advance notice before issuing the new order. Blindsided local leaders sent attorneys scrambling to figure out how to issue new local restrictions before Friday afternoon.

A spokesperson for Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott of Baltimore said the city’s legal department was reviewing potential options.

“I think there is power for the mayor and City Council and the health commissioner to exercise what are called ‘police powers,’” said City Solicitor Jim Shea, who spent Wednesday morning reviewing the city’s legal options. “I don’t think there’s any question about that.”

When fans could return to Oriole Park at Camden Yards remained up in the air Wednesday. The team said in a statement that it was continuing to work with city, state and Major League Baseball officials “to safely welcome fans back to Oriole Park at Camden Yards with proper social distancing guidelines.”

Mike Elias, the Orioles’ executive vice president and general manager, said the team was preparing for all possibilities as to how many spectators could come to games, and when that would begin.

”I think we’re planning for hosting people as soon as we possibly can, and we’re very optimistic,” Elias said.

As in Baltimore City, Baltimore County officials said they were reviewing the governor’s order. County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said that the county’s coronavirus metrics have declined in past weeks.

“In recent days, however, our numbers started to level off and we are obviously taking a look at what those numbers are as we sort of consider our next steps in response to the governor’s announcement,” Olszewski said.

Anne Arundel County opted to follow Hogan’s lead in lifting capacity restrictions on bars, restaurants, shops and other smaller establishments and letting larger venues operate at up to 50% capacity, while adhering to social distancing rules, Democratic County Executive Steuart Pittman announced Wednesday evening.

“While I believe there is a risk to lifting capacity limits at this time, we are putting our faith in local business owners, operators and customers to continue abiding by the distancing and mask requirements that have pushed our case rates down,” he said.

But Pittman planned to issue a new order before Friday to keep in place the county’s social gathering limits of 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors and a local cap on fees for third-party food delivery services, according to Chris Trumbauer, senior adviser to Pittman.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, a Democrat, blasted Hogan’s move in an interview with the Maryland Matters news website, worrying it would “trigger another spike [in infections] before the vaccines get widely disseminated.”

“I am truly baffled that we get a year into this and all of a sudden we can’t wait any longer,” Elrich said. “Why? Because other Republican governors have gone ahead of you and you don’t want to seem like you’re overly protective of the people?”

Officials in Carroll, Harford and Howard counties also said they planned to follow the governor’s revised rules.

Several public health experts were sharply critical Hogan’s decision to relax rules just as vaccination efforts — currently well short of levels needed to slow or end the pandemic — are speeding up. Less than 10% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated and some estimates call for 80% of the country or more to get immunized to end the pandemic.

“We’re dropping the ball on the 1-yard line,” said Brian Castrucci, an epidemiologist and the president and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, a public health-minded charitable organization. “There’s not a single public health official that will tell you to open indoor dining right now [to full capacity].”

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Dr. Eric Toner, a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the governor may have added a layer of confusion to the situation when he rescinded the power in the state executive order that localities cited in making their rules. That could cause confusion and uncertainty about what rules are in place this weekend in the state’s most-populated places.

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“I heard the governor say that he is seeking consistency across the state, and I think some degree of consistency is not a bad idea,” Toner said. “But Baltimore City is not the same as the rural counties on Eastern Shore, or Garrett County in Western Maryland. So, I think there has to be some degree of flexibility. And frankly, I hope that densely populated counties would not follow these guidelines, and take a more cautious approach.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Colin Campbell, Christine Condon, Alex Mann, Jon Meoli and Hallie Miller and Baltimore Sun Media reporters Brooks DuBose, Ana Faguy and Olivia Sanchez contributed to this article.

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