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Commissioner argues colleagues should work from Carroll County office despite COVID-19 risks

The Carroll County commissioners clashed Thursday when one of them argued his colleagues should report to work in person after about seven months of holding board meetings remotely.

The Board of County Commissioners began holding its weekly meetings virtually through video conferencing on March 26, less than two weeks after the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Carroll County. Since then, commissioners have met live over video remotely — until recently. Commissioners Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, and Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, attended the Sept. 24 meeting from the county office building in the same room, though spaced apart and separated by barriers. In subsequent meetings, one or two commissioners met in the same room inside the county office building, while other commissioners tuned in remotely.

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This week, Bouchat made it clear he thinks the meetings should be convened face to face.

“There’s absolutely no reason why this board cannot come into this building and conduct its business just like we ask of our employees,” Bouchat said. He and Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, were present in the commissioners meeting room at the county office Thursday. Wantz tuned in from his private office at the county building while Commissioners Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, and Richard Weaver, R-District 2, joined the call from outside the county office.

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Bouchat asserted he had reason to believe an “overwhelming majority” of county staff feel the commissioners should show up in person. Currently, some county staff work remotely while others report in person, depending on their responsibilities, according to county spokesperson Chris Winebrenner.

Rothstein likened the commissioners' actions to setting an example that emphasizes the importance of social distancing during a pandemic. He assured Bouchat that the commissioners being outside the physical office space does not mean work has stopped.

“We don’t need to physically be at a dais to ensure that we’re doing what’s right,” Rothstein said.

Wantz wasn’t comfortable with the idea of the five of them meeting face to face. He said he visits his parents regularly and wants to protect their health.

“I will not come to work and come into a room with someone who doesn’t believe in masks and then take that home to my mom and dad. I’m not going to do it," Wantz said in response to Bouchat.

Bouchat asked Wantz why, if he felt that way, he advocated to hold interviews in person, in one room, for the director of fire and emergency services position. Wantz’s recollection of the interviews included people wearing masks and social distancing. Rothstein said there was an accepted risk in doing that and they’ve learned more since then.

Bouchat suggested certain executive functions aren’t being met by commissioners when they fail to gather in person, but stopped short of specifying what shortfalls those were. Weaver told Bouchat much of their duties as commissioners takes them outside the confines of an office anyway. Rothstein referenced a virtual town hall meeting he recently held. Weaver planned to attend a virtual Finksburg citizens meeting that night.

“I don’t think we’ve missed a beat by the way we’re doing anything,” Weaver said.

Frazier said he agreed with Bouchat’s desire to end the county’s state of emergency, but suggested they wait to debate it until closer to its expiration.

Bouchat, as he has done in the past, questioned whether masks make a difference. But medical experts, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the Carroll County Health Department, encourage people to wear masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 because the virus has been shown to spread through airborne droplets, the spread of which can be limited by masks that cover the nose and mouth.

Ed Singer, county health officer, has said masks are only part of the solution and should be one of a few safety measures people practice.

Bouchat claimed a recent a CDC study found 84% of people who caught COVID-19 had been wearing masks. President Donald Trump made a similar statement last week, claiming that 85% of people who wear masks contract COVID-19, but this claim is incorrect according to an Associated Press fact check.

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The study actually found that 85% of the approximately 150 people who were surveyed said they had worn a mask often or always around the time they would have contracted COVID-19, the AP reported. People who tested positive were also twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant, where masks are removed for eating, than those who tested negative, according to the study’s summary.

Rothstein suggested Bouchat check his numbers.

The commissioners’ debate over how to meet lasted about 25 minutes and did not end with a decision to change how the commissioners meet. Wantz said the board would take concerns under advisement.

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