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Rep. Harris compares Maryland to N. Korea, delegate sues Hogan as opponents protest coronavirus restrictions

Dozens of Marylanders again demonstrated against Gov. Larry Hogan’s stay-at-home order, embarking on a caravan from Western Maryland to the lower Eastern Shore on Saturday.

The ReOpen Maryland group planned the protest against the governor’s mandates after holding one in downtown Annapolis last month. Hogan’s stay-at home order is part of the Republican governor’s measures to deter the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed at least 1,156 in the state as of Saturday morning.

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“Unbelievably, in America, I have been told that you can’t practice your religion and the state has decided that my religion is essential or nonessential,” Republican Rep. Andy Harris told protesters assembled in a Salisbury parking lot at the final stop. The speech was broadcast on the Facebook page of Patriot Picket, a gun rights advocacy group.

“I didn’t wake up in Communist China and I didn’t wake up in North Korea … and tomorrow morning, I should be able to go to the church of my choice and worship the way I choose,” he said.

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Later in the day, ReOpen Maryland took its protest to federal court, joining Del. Dan Cox, a Frederick Republican, and several churches and businesses in a lawsuit asking that Hogan’s restrictions be invalidated. The plaintiffs argue that their right to travel, free speech and assembly have been violated, and that businesses have sustained deep losses because of what they call unlawful orders.

The lengthy lawsuit and accompanying request for injunction touch on a range of what they call constitutional violations, including the right to practice their religion. And the plaintiffs say that because the state’s top judge has curtailed many court functions, they have no ability to contest Hogan’s actions in Maryland’s courts.

Hogan addressed the protests Sunday during an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union."

“I think everybody has a right to protest and express their feelings,” Hogan said. “A couple of dozen people did so yesterday and they have every right to do that. Sadly, we had far more people die yesterday in Maryland than we had protesters.”

Hogan also addressed Harris’ fiery comments, stating he believed the congressman may have confused North Korea with South Korea.

“South Korea’s done a great job on testing and we just saved the lives of thousands of Marylanders by getting those half million tests from Korea,” Hogan said. “He’s obviously got the right to say whatever crazy things he wants to say but I don’t really need to respond to him.”

On their drive from Frederick, the protesters made multiple stops. Group members had said they would follow social distancing guidelines by remaining in their vehicles, but many did not.

“One big reason we are in a position to consider reopening Maryland is because of social distancing, so the reports from today’s demonstration are confusing, if not disturbing — especially given that a Member of Congress was present," Mike Ricci, spokesperson for Hogan, said in a statement. “The overwhelming majority of Marylanders are doing what they need to do to get us all through this, and we are grateful to them and all of the healthcare heroes we are celebrating today,” referring to Hogan declaring Saturday “Healthcare Heroes Day.”

Hogan has also ordered the closure of all nonessential businesses. The state reported 37,225 unemployment claims for last week, continuing a historic spike since the beginning of the pandemic.

At a lunch stop on Kent Island, James Knowles of Queen Anne’s County said, “We should’ve had the opportunity to adhere to certain rules and regulations rather than be shut down. My point is all businesses should have been reviewed before the essential, nonessential was distinguished.”

Similar demonstrations have occurred nationwide, and leaders of several states used the start of a new month Friday to begin reopening their states. President Donald Trump praised protests, notably one in Michigan where conservative activists brandished swastikas, nooses, Confederate flags and weapons at the state capital building, the Associated Press reports.

Hogan has said he won’t initiate his phased plan to reopen Maryland until the state sees downward trends or plateauing in hospitalizations and patients in intensive care, previously noting the state would need to see such trends for 14 days. Guidelines issued by the Trump administration last month also mentioned a 14-day downward trajectory.

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Maryland hasn’t reported fewer than 128 new hospitalizations since April 15, with Saturday’s 192 new patients the third-highest increase in that span.

Maryland’s 14-day rolling average of new victims has yet to decrease, while the state has never reported more than two consecutive days in which the number of new confirmed cases was lower than the day prior.

Jeff Hulbert, the founder of Patriot Picket, said responsibility for defending against the virus does not lie with government.

“We believe in personal responsibility,” said the Annapolis resident. “What Governor Hogan should be doing is setting the guidelines and the guardrails, then we put on our personal protective equipment, we go to work, we go shopping, we go out to meet with friends, but we use our personal responsibility to take care of our own lives.”

Former St. Mary’s County Del. Deb Rey, a Republican, addressed the crowd in Kent Island, where many stood around her.

“We are out here protecting our First Amendment rights,” she said to cheers. “The First Amendment right we’re out here about is redressing our grievances with government. This is not a protest. This is our way of letting Governor Hogan and his administration know that we are not happy with his decisions to keep us locked down.”

Rey, speaking into a megaphone, argued that the stay-at-home order should apply only to those who are infected, saying, “You and I are not sick” to those gathered around.

It’s possible for someone to have the coronavirus, be asymptomatic and spread it to others.

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Harris, a Republican representing the Eastern Shore and parts of Harford, Baltimore and Carroll counties who is a licensed physician specializing in anesthesiology, said he thinks enough is known about the virus now to start ending restrictions.

“Let’s let common sense prevail now. We know what’s safe and what isn’t,” Harris said to a cheering crowd of at least several dozen in Salisbury, most of whom did not wear masks and stood closer than 6 feet together.

Many wore yellow T-shirts that read “Open Maryland” on the front and “We are all essential. Trust each other” on the back. Other speakers discussed the possibility of legal actions to attempt to overturn restrictions and promised future public events in coming weeks.

Baltimore Sun reporters Pamela Wood and Lillian Reed and Capital Gazette reporter Alex Mann contributed to this article.

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