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Carroll County businesses not implementing social distancing during coronavirus could be closed temporarily

Starting April 8, Carroll County health officials will be assessing whether local businesses still open during the coronavirus pandemic have acted to protect their employees and customers from the risk of spreading the disease.

As the coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, spread throughout Maryland, health and government officials are highly recommending guidelines for “social distancing” — strategies for reducing the risk of spreading the virus. But while many businesses have been closed by executive orders from Gov. Larry Hogan, businesses deemed essential, including grocery stores and pharmacies, have continued operating — sometimes with large crowds of customers.

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Hogan has given local health officers the authority to require businesses to implement social distancing practices, effective Wednesday morning, or close if they do not comply, according to a news release from the Carroll County Health Department and Board of County Commissioners.

“I’m very glad to see an executive order come from the governor on this because I’m on a weekly conference call with he and his staff,” Commissioner Stephen Wantz said. “This came up last week, and I told them that I had a challenge with many of my big-box stores and grocery stores, while all of us are trying to do what we can with social distancing. When you walk in there on the weekends, it looked like vacation time because people were shopping and whatever and that’s not what we’re supposed to be doing.”

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The health department provided social distancing guidance to retail establishments throughout the county last week.

“We wanted to make sure that they had the information and that they could comply with the requirements,” Carroll County Health Officer Ed Singer said. “I still see people that are gathering in some of these stores and there’s crowds, and it’s not real well controlled. It’s like some of the stores are doing a really good job but other stores haven’t done anything.”

Some strategies for social distancing at stores include marking floors with 6-foot increments to help ensure customers with keep that recommended distance from one another; limiting the number of people at one time in the store; and establishing customer flow patterns to avoid contact between customers, according to the release.

It is also imperative to disinfect surfaces that customers regularly touch, such as shopping carts, door handles and checkout areas, the release states.

“Our primary concern is that we want retailers to follow the guidance that’s out there and make sure that the community is protected and also that their workers are protected ... But it’s also important that we don’t want to wind up getting all the people who work at whatever retail facility, whether it be Walmart or Weis or Safeway or whatnot, we don’t want to wind up with those people getting sick,” Singer said. “Then you can’t man those critical pieces so that everybody can get their food and toilet paper and everything else that they need.”

By the start of business Wednesday, if stores haven’t acted to follow the guidelines to ensure social distancing, they could immediately be closed until they fix the problem, according to Singer. If the county finds repeated failures to follow the social distancing guidelines, the store can be ordered to close “for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency,” the release states.

“It’s not our goal to shut anybody down,” Singer said. “The health department, I think, sometimes even during times when we don’t have a public health emergency — and this public health emergency is far more serious than anything else we’ve ever faced before — but in this public health emergency where we’re trying to prevent the spread of this deadly disease.”

This order isn’t to make things harder, but to keep people safe, said Wantz, president of the Board of County Commissioners.

“I don’t want to create any hardship on people that need to shop, I really don’t,” Wantz said. “But we have got to make sure that we are doing it in the safest manner possible, especially considering that we have not even seen the peak of this pandemic yet.”

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