Worried about rising coronavirus cases and fatalities, and still angry that some people aren’t taking COVID-19 restrictions seriously enough in the region (as evidenced by weekend crowds viewing the cherry blossoms in D.C.), Gov. Larry Hogan attempted to thread the needle Monday, announcing tighter rules to close “non-essential” businesses in Maryland, and offering expanded aid to small businesses and unemployment insurance benefits. He stopped short of ordering a shelter-in-place directive, and made a point of saying so — a message likely meant to convey that he needs to address the public health threat, but is also mindful of the economic consequences.
Still, what other states — including neighboring Delaware — are calling “shelter-in-place” looks a great deal like what Mr. Hogan sees as the “closing of nonessential businesses.” Just look at what he said after declaring there was no such directive: "We are telling you unless you have an essential reason to leave your house, then you should stay in your homes.”
That’s not exactly a shelter-out-of-place order. And there’s good reason for it. As Mr. Hogan observed, Maryland has now reported nearly 300 COVID-19 cases in most of the state’s 24 subdivisions, including a third fatality that was announced Saturday, a Montgomery County woman in her 40s. Maryland’s numbers are in what might be described as the second tier of the outbreak within the U.S. — having “widespread” community transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and reported cases in the “100 to 500” category similar to Illinois, Pennsylvania and Ohio, all of which have either already imposed a shelter-in-place rule or closed nonessential businesses. If anything, Maryland has been slightly behind the curve in business restrictions.
Mr. Hogan is correct to attack the matter on two fronts, though, as a public health emergency and also as an economic crisis in the making. But at least on that latter front, there are some positive signs. While unemployment numbers are already rising and there is certain to be hardship ahead, it appears the Baltimore area, for one, is less at risk than many of its peers. According to a recent Brookings study, of nearly 400 U.S. metropolitan areas in danger of economic hardship from the COVID-19 outbreak (those more dependent on “high risk” industries such as tourism or consumer spending, for example), the Baltimore-Columbia-Towson area ranks No. 232. San Francisco, in contrast, is pegged at 162 and Chicago at 81. Within Maryland, the jurisdiction most in danger can be found near the Atlantic Ocean resorts with Salisbury rated at 25.
But if the governor is showing symptoms of cold feet, we would urge him to be bold and call his order what it is to avoid confusion and impart the seriousness of the situation. Marylanders understand (better than most, perhaps, an advantage gained from the presence of the National Institutes of Health and preeminent medical research centers like Johns Hopkins) that the tougher the restrictions now, the less severe the outbreak later. We can handle the words “shelter in place.” If anything, we like our medicine undiluted, the better to get well faster. What we don’t appreciate is the kind of dithering we are seeing from just down the road in the nation’s capital.
And sheltering in place does not have to mean staying inside and locking your doors. It’s not a lockdown or a quarantine. It can be narrowly tailored to allow some movement — to retrieve or deliver essential items, goods and services, say, or movement for sanity’s sake, like taking a walk in the woods (staying at least 6 feet away from other walkers, of course). It can be tailored to be exactly what Governor Hogan has already ordered. By refusing to call his directive a shelter in place order, many residents could still see this as a time to socialize and run out to the grocery store whenever the mood strikes, rather than to carefully plan ahead and consolidate trips.
We undertand that Mr. Hogan and other governors dealing with this scenario are like race car drivers building their vehicles while zooming along at 100 miles an hour. Caution is certainly in order. But doing too little and watching the fatality rate go up, as seniors and those with compromised immune systems bear the brunt of those decisions, is as great a risk as making the tough choices now and dealing with economic consequences of that as the public health threat subsides. We simply don’t get a second chance to contain the spread of a highly contagious disease.