Baltimore County Council approved County Executive Johnny Olszewski’s local state of emergency order by a 4-3 vote during a hearing Monday, giving the county the power to reinstate restrictions enacted earlier during the coronavirus pandemic to stem the spread of the disease.
The evening hearing saw a significant amount of contention over the approval of the order, which the Democratic county executive reinstated last week amid a spike in coronavirus cases.
The Republican wing of county council — Councilmen David Marks, Wade Kach and Todd Crandell — all voted against the measure as they and some residents argued that the emergency order gives the county executive too much power. All four Democrats on the council voted for approval.
The order allows the county to reinstate various restrictions, including capacity limits on businesses and indoor gatherings. The vote Monday allows the order to extend beyond Aug. 31 and will require another county council vote to approve its end.
“The only thing that a state of emergency does is … it allows the county executive to control commerce, transportation and other aspects of society,” Crandell said.
He argued that “it’s up to people’s personal choice as to how they want to handle it” and that COVID has continued to spread despite the fact that about 63.78% of county residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the state Department of Health.
However, Democratic members of the council countered that the county and state have continued to see rising case totals and hospitalizations over the past two months, necessitating that government bodies respond to the changing situation.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from Aug. 23 through Aug. 29 the county was considered to be at a “high” rate of community transmission, with 883 cases during that period and a positivity rate of over 5%.
“Clearly, we are moving in a bad direction,” Council Chair Julian Jones Jr. said. “As a society, we need rules and regulations. We need rules and laws to protect our citizens and many citizens are looking to us for leadership.”
Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, who said “Thank God” immediately after the vote passed, said that part of the issue was that leaving it up to “people’s personal choice” was what led to the increased spread in recent weeks.
While health officials have recorded a number of breakthrough cases, the majority of new coronavirus cases over the past two months have been from people who were not vaccinated.
“The unvaccinated are walking among us, maskless, because that’s what they’re comfortable with,” Bevins said. “The unvaccinated are ones dying right now and the ones clogging up all of the emergency rooms.”
There was also considerable discussion as to the true impact the increase in cases has had on hospitals and their emergency rooms.
Crandell argued that county hospitals have not been inundated with coronavirus-positive patients as other states have, particularly in the South. Health officials said earlier this month that while hospitals are filling up with patients, fewer patients are being treated for the coronavirus than during previous waves of the pandemic.
“The state of emergency has nothing to do with the health care community,” Crandell said. “It’s all about optics. It’s all about money. It’s all about control.”
Others pushed back, saying that it isn’t a sound strategy to wait while case counts and hospitalizations are clearly on the rise, even if it’s not currently to the point of straining hospitals’ capacity to respond.
Della Leister, the county’s deputy health officer, said that the county saw a 23% increase in hospitalizations over the past week ending last Friday that was tied to the uptick in COVID cases.
County Administrative Officer Stacy Rodgers added that hospitals have seen an increase in emergency room visits during the recent uptick in cases and it will cause strain on the staff if allowed to continue. She said the emergency order could also open up avenues for hospitals to offer more services via telehealth, where medical practitioners can evaluate patients over videoconferencing.
“It’s not just about the [intensive care unit] or the critical car beds,” she said. “The COVID piece is exacerbating it.”
Crandell was by far the most vocal opponent to the measure during Monday’s hearing. While Marks and Kach voted “no,” Kach only asked a question about whether the emergency order would extend to local schools and Marks asked questions about the hospitalization usage and vaccination rates.
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On the latter subject matter, Marks asked what measures it would take to get the vaccination rate to increase further. According to the CDC, about 69.8% of county residents aged 12 years or older have been fully vaccinated.
“We’ve done a lot of things right here, right?” he said. “We continue to do this aggressive outreach. What more will it take to get that vaccination rate up?”
Jones countered that it will take people being told they can’t participate in various activities to force them to get vaccinated, telling a story of a woman who wouldn’t get vaccinated until she was told she couldn’t go on vacation without it.
He added that the county needs to take proactive measures, equating the situation to when he served as county fire chief. He said, as fire chief, it was better to request resources and additional firefighters they may not need then end up without them when they are necessary.
“If you don’t need them, you send them home,” he said. “But you don’t wait until things are so bad that that’s when you decide to do something.”
In a statement, Olszewski applauded those who voted in favor of approving the order, saying it “ensures Baltimore County can access every tool necessary to keep our residents as safe as possible amid the alarming spread of the Delta variant.”
He added that, since July 30, the 7-day case rate in the county has increased 376% and that hospitalizations in the county have increased “by about 600%” over the past month.