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Carroll County commissioner urges action to reopen Maryland’s economy from coronavirus restrictions

Gov. Larry Hogan has implemented social distancing measures in order to limit the spread of the coronavirus. But some residents, as well as a Carroll County commissioner, are raising their voices in frustration over those measures and the resulting economic damage.

Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, wants to see healthy people return to work as soon as possible, though he acknowledged that a gradual opening is likely the best way to reopen business and other activity that has been shut down.

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Those who can’t work are hurting, he said. He fears jobless individuals will experience depression, anxiety, and turn to drug abuse or alcoholism. “The economic shutdown in the long term is going to do more harm to our society than the pandemic,” he said.

Hogan said Wednesday social distancing measures — including a stay-at-home order for all Marylanders and the closure of nonessential businesses — are working and the state is now in a position to begin planning its recovery phase.

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The Republican governor said hospitalization rates are beginning to stabilize because of the "early and aggressive actions, and because of the extraordinary sacrifice of Marylanders.” And because of that, he said, plans for rolling back executive orders would begin to be revealed next week.

"We’re now in a position to move from containment and mitigation to plan the gradual rollout of our recovery phase,” Hogan said.

Bouchat also challenged Hogan’s authority to keep people from going to work and questioned whether an executive order would hold up in court.

Mike Ricci, spokesperson for Hogan, said in an email Friday afternoon, “We are confident that the Governor’s stay-at-home order has a firm basis in law, and has the force of law, including provisions in the Public Safety article of the Maryland Code.”

Ricci also mentioned Hogan’s Wednesday news conference in which he addressed the state’s aim to take a gradual approach.

And in a Friday afternoon news conference, Hogan described himself as a “lifelong small businessman” and said he understands the frustration of small business owners and others unhappy with the extended closure of businesses and gatherings.

“We’re going to have to do that in a safe manner,” the governor said. “I’m just as frustrated as they are.”

Hogan also referred to a plan the White House detailed Thursday that advises against lifting restrictions until 14 days of coronavirus-related numbers going down. “Our numbers are all going up,” Hogan said. “So, no matter who you talk to, now is not the time to open things up.”

On Thursday, President Donald Trump offered a three-phase approach to reopen the economy gradually, putting the decision of when in the hands of governors.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has killed 35 people and infected 291 in Carroll County as of April 17, according to the health department. Statewide, the Maryland Department of Health has reported 11,572 coronavirus cases and 425 deaths.

Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, said he was on a conference call Thursday with Hogan and his staff. Wantz said the governor outlined four actions that need to take place before recovery can begin:

  • Ensure hospitals and health care system are prepared for surge capacity.
  • Dramatically increase testing capabilities.
  • Have enough people to perform contact tracing, or finding and isolating anyone who might have come into contact with people who have contracted the virus.
  • Obtain an adequate supply of personal protective equipment, such as face masks and shields.

Wantz said he supports gradual reopening and is following the governor’s lead.

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“For me it’s about ensuring we do it in the best way possible,” Wantz said Friday. “I’m just as anxious as anyone to be open.”

He fears that lifting restrictions too quickly could lead to a new spike in cases.

“We can’t do it again, so we’ve got to do it right when we gradually reopen,” Wantz said.

Some Marylanders are planning a protest in the state’s capital to push for a return to normalcy on May 1. The “ReOpen Maryland” protest is planned to occur in Annapolis on Saturday afternoon.

According to a news release from organizers ReOpen Maryland and Marylanders Against Excessive Quarantine, thousands plan to peacefully protest starting at noon.

“Government mandating sick people to stay home is called quarantine. However, the government mandating healthy citizens to stay home, forcing businesses and churches to close is called tyranny,” the release states.

The commissioner said he supports the assembly but doesn’t plan to attend. He sees the protest as a manifestation of Marylanders’ frustration.

“Those people’s voices need to be heard," Bouchat said.

He would like to see those who could and feel safe doing so return to work, while the vulnerable remain at home.

“Our policy is going to expand poverty and make us more susceptible to the spread and misery of coronavirus,” Bouchat said.

Bouchat on Friday said he wrote six $100 checks to food pantries that serve his district.

The commissioner is not alone in his concerns.

Del. Warren Miller, a Republican representing parts of Carroll and Howard counties, penned a letter to Hogan on April 14 imploring him to plan the reopening of the economy.

“The longer we delay a coordinated plan and communication of that plan, the more harm is being done to our constituents who want to work and our non-essential business owners that need to reopen,” Miller wrote. “To that end, I write to you today, so as to implore you to give those Marylanders facing hard decisions today some hope in the near future. Without a reasonable timeline for restarting the economy and without hope, irreversible business decisions are being made every day.”

U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, who represents the Eastern Shore and parts of Carroll, Baltimore and Harford counties, said in a Facebook post, “In areas like the Eastern Shore, where the COVID threat is much lower, we should move expeditiously to re-open the economy.”

Representatives of the business community have spoken up, too.

A letter signed by 14 business entities was sent to Hogan and leaders of the Senate and House asking them for help.

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In the April 16 letter, they ask for one set of COVID-19 rules and regulations to eliminate confusion (though not a one-size-fits-all approach), for liability protection and for the state to communicate changes transparently.

The signees include the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, Maryland Retailers Association, National Federation of Independent Business for Maryland, and representatives of the building industry, hotels and lodging, trucking, tax professionals.

Bouchat hopes a balance can be struck soon that keeps people safe and business strong.

“The people are hurting,” he said. "We have to find the equilibrium between the economy and public health. Where precisely that is, I don’t know.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater and McKenna Oxenden contributed to this article.

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