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Maryland’s Republican senators back Gov. Larry Hogan on refusal to close businesses, attribute coronavirus spike to protests

The Maryland Senate Republican Caucus has thrown its support behind Gov. Larry Hogan’s refusal to reenact statewide restrictions on businesses, issuing a letter to him that claims Democratic officials are “scapegoating” businesses and casts blame for rising rates of COVID-19 positivity on young people who attended protests.

Dated July 21 and signed by 15 senate Republicans, including those from Harford, Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Carroll counties, among others, the letter characterizes calls for the governor to place restrictions on restaurants and bars as “doubly misplaced,” and suggests that the spike in coronavirus cases among people under 35 could be attributed to the protests against police brutality sparked by George Floyd’s death. It urges Hogan to resist reviving the restrictions.

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The letter comes as Baltimore City is scheduled to suspend bars and indoor dining again after Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young ordered it Wednesday and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., also a Democrat, ordered all people over 2-years-old to wear masks in indoor public spaces Thursday.

Both officials have pushed Hogan to consider reviving restrictions on bars and restaurants as part of a group of local officials — including several jurisdictions’ health officers — who urged him to take statewide action.

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The letter does not mention any democratic officials by name.

The letter casts large crowds of predominantly young people present in Washington D.C. and Baltimore as Petri dishes for the virus to ripple through, suggesting the large gatherings — numbering in the thousands in Baltimore alone — contributed to the rising rate of COVID-19 positivity in people under 35.

“It is beyond debate that participants in these mass gatherings were exposed to COVID repeatedly as they traveled, lodged and congregated in support,” the letter states. “Logic dictates that we should expect a sizable increase in COVID positive following such events.”

Sen. Bob Cassilly, a Republican representing Harford County and a signatory of the letter, said it was not targeted at any particular Democrats. He said that the relevant coronavirus metrics are not high enough to warrant further statewide restrictions.

“We always knew from the start that there were going to be ups and downs,” he said. “Suddenly we get some micro spikes and it’s all Chicken Little — the sky is falling.”

Cassilly said the push by some Democratic officials was a knee-jerk reaction that would only hurt livelihoods of small business owners and their workers who cannot rely on an “army of lawyers” and lobbyists to insulate them from regulation and restriction the way larger corporations can.

In speaking with the Republican Caucus and trading stories of what happens in their districts, Cassilly said that all of the businesses they had collectively observed were abiding by the governor’s guidelines and trying their best to stay open — self policing their staff and patrons.

“None of these people can afford a shutdown period, even for a matter of days,” he said.

Small businesses are frequently a target of Democrats, in Cassilly’s view, because of the relative ease of regulating them. Small businesses have to comply with regulations, lending a sense of accomplishment to lawmakers when they emplace rules on them — a politically easier proposition than arresting individuals for failing to abide by public health guidelines.

“If there is one group of people that will comply and make you feel that you have done something, it is small businesses,” he said. “I can pat myself on the back and say I’ve done something ... What you’ve really done is screw up a lot of people’s lives.”

Cassilly said the protests of George Floyd’s death certainly exposed demonstrators to the coronavirus. He said it was not fair that businesses would be penalized when the demonstrations could also have spread the virus. The First Amendment guarantees the right to assemble and protest, but Cassilly said businesses should not bear the consequences for a spike in infections while the protests do not receive the same scrutiny.

Many businesses are struggling in Harford County, Cassilly said. The senator also has a private civil law practice, and he has seen some small businesses, whose owners are aging, prepare to file for bankruptcy and close shop in the county. Another wave of shutdowns would be disastrous, he contended.

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“When we lose it, it is not just some guy’s right to enrich himself, these are livelihoods, and not just the owner’s livelihood, the employees',” he said. “That was our point: you have this great tolerance for protest, but you don’t have the same concern and tolerance for people’s livelihoods.”

Cassilly said smaller protests, in coordination with officials, could guarantee a safer environment; he pointed to the protests in Bel Air as examples of a safer assembly.

Lester Davis, a spokesperson for Baltimore’s Mayor Young, said the restrictions on indoor dining in Baltimore would last for two weeks, but they would be evaluated “on a daily basis.” He said the mayor has called for statewide restrictions based on the success of other states’ approaches — like California — and the understanding that people are mobile and could potentially ferry the virus to and from other jurisdictions surrounding the city.

“The states that have performed well are states that have taken a statewide approach,” Davis said. “Folks do not live their lives just in the area of their home.”

Dori Henry, a spokesperson for Olszewski, said the Baltimore County executive has long believed in a statewide approach to curbing the virus. Without a uniform set of rules and regulations, confusion follows. If counties are not united in their approaches, residents can simply go to other jurisdictions that are open, defeating the point of the restrictions.

“The problem with a county by county approach is it creates confusion and it creates a disadvantage for our businesses,” she said.

Young has stated on multiple occasions that he would not hesitate to take corrective action if the relevant numbers began trending in a negative direction, Davis said. Businesses can recover, Davis said, but lives lost cannot be.

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“We know our small business are hurting and they have been put in an impossible situation,” he said. “There’s a finality to death from COVID that does not lend itself to any kind of corrective measures.”

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Sen. Justin Ready, a Republican representing Carroll County who signed the letter, said statewide restrictions would be too broad. The state’s numbers have shown improvement — though there has been a small rise, he said — and it would be unfair to penalize businesses when the protests could have spread the virus more than they did. He also pointed to the Fourth of July weekend as a potential cause for the increase in positivity.

“The numbers show us that we have had a little bit of a rise … but our positivity rates are still in good shape,” he said. “The idea that it is a bunch of people crowding into a bar or restaurant, that is simply not the case.”

Anne Arundel County Sen. Ed Reilly, a Republican who signed the letter, said that demonstrations could be socially distanced — as was the United States Naval Academy’s graduation — and it is incumbent on organizers to keep their rallies and protests safe, though requiring more work. The issue is not partisan, he said; the crowd at Thursday’s Back the Blue rally held in Annapolis was not socially distanced.

“My observation would be that those local folks would have the responsibility of encouraging, directing and guiding people to wear masks at a minimum and do social distancing when it is appropriate and when it can be done,” he said. “These are fundamental public safety issues that should be followed.”

Reilly is in agreement with Hogan’s stance of letting counties decide the level of restrictions they will impose on local businesses and residents. Anne Arundel County executive Steuart Pittman announced mild restrictions on restaurants and bars Thursday, requiring them to close indoor dining areas at 10 p.m. He also imposed a 25-person limit on indoor gatherings. Those restrictions go into effect at 5 p.m. Friday and carry a $500 fine with the first infraction.

Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings, of Baltimore and Harford counties, also said that businesses have largely complied with the governor’s orders and ought to stay open. He pointed to the increasing number of tests as a cause of the subsequent increase in infections.

Localities could better help restaurants by opening up sidewalks and parking spaces for outdoor dining options,” Jennings said.

“I think that you have got to give these restaurants more ability to run their businesses; set up the guardrails and tell them what they need to do to comply,” he said. “They need to get to the point of … no shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service — plain and simple.”

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