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Gov. Hogan washes his hands of coronavirus decision-making | COMMENTARY

Barber Angelo Monico, who works in Bel Air, said that his phone has been ringing off the hook since Gov. Hogan announced that barbers could reopen.
Barber Angelo Monico, who works in Bel Air, said that his phone has been ringing off the hook since Gov. Hogan announced that barbers could reopen. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

After two months of smart and measured, if at times unpopular, decisions to protect Marylanders from being overwhelmed by coronavirus, Gov. Larry Hogan’s launch of his reopening plan Wednesday — two weeks after we hit a peak hospitalization rate — felt reckless by comparison.

He threw open the doors on “Stage One” with a broader scope than he’d initially telegraphed and little, if any, coordination with Maryland’s most populous counties, where the battle against COVID-19 is still very much raging. Not to mention, he set it to take effect two days later on a warm Friday afternoon — leaving local jurisdictions no real time to plan.

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It was not a good look for Maryland’s Republican governor, who’s been heralded as a sort of anti-Trump when it comes to coronavirus: rational and decisive to the president’s rash and dithering. And it gets worse when you factor in two other pieces of news: the hearings showing that problems with the state’s unemployment benefits are far from “fixed,” as the governor had earlier claimed, and the revelation that only a fifth of coronavirus relief grants — and less than 5% of available loan funding — had been distributed to small businesses in the state.

These are areas in which we would expect Maryland’s “Open for Business,” Republican governor to excel. The fact that he has not bolsters questions about the wisdom of his Stage One decisions. He has said he hit his own benchmarks for beginning the recovery, but he has offered limited data to prove it. State lawmakers sent him a letter Thursday asking 15 questions about contact tracing and other testing and for the answers to be released by next Wednesday.

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“We implore you to provide full transparency and daily updates,” wrote Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones.

Data we do have show some benchmarks were met — but just barely. Take the 14-day decline in hospitalization rates; it’s slight.

On April 30, the state’s coronavirus website listed a peak of 1,700 hospitalizations. Two weeks later, on May 13, when the governor made his Stage One announcement, it was down to 1,600. That’s the reality. And it only reached that level after bouncing back and forth between those two numbers for days. In fact, from May 5 through May 9 — a period during which Governor Hogan relaxed restrictions on outdoor activities — hospitalization was consistently on the high end at 1,700. Overall, Maryland’s drop amounts to 100 to 150 cases, depending on the day. That’s not insignificant, but we’d call that more a stabilization than a sustained decline.

And as much as the governor likes to point out his resourcefulness in acquiring thousands of coronavirus testing kits from South Korea, it may still not be enough given that nursing home deaths shot up 25% in the past week, and Hank Greenberg, director of AARP Maryland, is begging for more testing. “We want to see this happen immediately,” he told Sun reporters. Leaders in both Baltimore city and county have also said they have nowhere near the testing capacity needed to fully implement Stage One.

Also troubling is the fact that Governor Hogan put the onus on the counties and Baltimore city to determine when they want to participate in Stage One. He called it a “flexible and community-based approach which empowers individual county leaders,” but it feels more like he’s washing his hands of decision-making, in addition to COVID-19 germs.

Baltimore-area leaders appeared caught off guard by the Stage One order.

It “was more than we expected,” said Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman.

“We do not have the building blocks in place,” said Howard County Executive Calvin Ball.

“Rushing to reopen ... jeopardizes the lives of our neighbors and loved ones,” said Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young in a joint statement.

The county executives of Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, the hardest-hit jurisdictions in the state, responded by immediately announcing extensions of the restrictions the governor was allowing areas to lift. Later, Baltimore City would join them, and Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties would announce limited reopening guidelines.

Perhaps that’s vindication for Governor Hogan — proof that letting the locals decide works. But we fear it will lead to compliance confusion as people try to figure out what’s OK when, where and why. Just because Harford County’s executive is working to reopen everything allowable in his jurisdiction doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for you to shop in Bel Air — and then come back to Baltimore with whatever you might have picked up, even if the retail stores are kept at 50% capacity per the governor’s guidelines. Coronavirus doesn’t recognize geographic borders.

And we certainly don’t want you worshipping there or here or anywhere indoors yet. The governor’s own “Roadmap to Recovery” specifically put indoor religious meetings into the “medium-risk,” second-stage-of-opening category. But then Governor Hogan shifted gears Wednesday and announced that houses of worship could hold services at half capacity, with outdoor services just “strongly encouraged.”

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At least one of the governor’s own advisors isn’t comfortable with that move, especially with its many opportunities for singing, which expels air and germs. “I would personally advise against churches reopening at this point,” said Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “Gatherings are high risk … I would not have included those in Phase One.” He’s also not too keen on the reopening of barbershops and hair salons, even half full.

There is a clear political division among those embracing or rejecting Stage One, but we like to think that’s because the urban areas most at risk tend to lean Democrat, while the rural areas living in relative safety lean Republican. Mr. Hogan has said this isn’t a partisan issue, and we want to believe him.

But it makes his handling of Stage One all that more baffling. If this is about saving lives, why not just wait until the more populated areas have a better handle on the virus? Or split the stage into two parts, with the rural counties leading the way? Why abdicate responsibility now? What happened to the “buck stops with me” governor?

Granted, Stage One still emphasizes the importance of staying home. Instead of a stay-at-home order, the state now has a “safer-at-home” order. And while many businesses and organizations can resume operations under certain restrictions — retail, manufacturing, houses of worship, animal shelters and shooting ranges, for example — many others cannot, such as restaurants and movie theaters.

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And we’re glad for that, as well as the “stop signs” Governor Hogan has built into his stages that would lead the easing of restrictions to be slowed, stopped or reversed, such as an unexpected increase in hospitalizations or evidence that Marylanders are no longer social distancing. We’re also glad he’s consulting medical advisors like Dr. Ingelsby, who mostly approves of the state going to Stage One, despite his misgivings about houses of worship and hairdos.

When making his announcement, Governor Hogan said every decision he makes is “both fact-based and science-based.” But there’s a lot of guesswork even in science, and we learn something new we didn’t know about this particular novel coronavirus nearly every day. We won’t even know if going to Stage One was a mistake for weeks; a resurgence could take that long to show itself.

That’s why we hope this was one bad week for the governor, who’ll soon get back to his non-partisan prioritizing of people over politics when it comes to this disease. We recognize that there are no perfect solutions in trying to balance the public health risk with the state’s economic viability. But we don’t want to feel like we’re being rushed.

“This virus is going to be with us until there’s a vaccine,” Dr. Inglesby said. “Just because a reopening order has been made or has been allowed, it doesn’t mean that it is now all clear.”

And we only get one chance to get it right.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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