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If schools aren’t sure they can protect Marylanders amid a pandemic, why should we trust bars to? | COMMENTARY

A crowd at The Point in Fells, a restaurant in the Fells Point neighborhood of Baltimore, one day after Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young announced that the city was moving to phase 2 of the city's coronavirus recovery plan.
A crowd at The Point in Fells, a restaurant in the Fells Point neighborhood of Baltimore, one day after Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young announced that the city was moving to phase 2 of the city's coronavirus recovery plan. (Sameer Rao/The Baltimore Sun)

Some have described Gov. Larry Hogan as acting like Maryland’s dad when it comes to bad behavior at the state’s bars and restaurants, using a Ward Cleaver approach to protecting public safety amid the pandemic and lecturing others about breaking the rules. But granddad seems more like it, or maybe an in-law — someone slightly removed who wants to tell you how to do things, but not be responsible for the outcome. A parent would have known better than to hand his kids the keys to the family sports car and expect them not to drive it.

That’s basically what the governor did when he pushed five weeks ago for the state’s bars and restaurants, many of them tiny, to reopen at reduced capacity inside, where adequate social distancing is difficult, if not downright impossible, and the risk of transmission greater than when outdoors. Since then, coronavirus cases among young adults in their 20s and 30s, already on the rise since May, have surged; they now account for a third of the state’s caseload and counting. This apparently shocked the governor, who sent a letter to local leaders Tuesday complaining about rising COVID-19 cases “connected to non-compliance with public health requirements.”

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We have to ask: Has he been to a bar? Not the cinematic cowboy kind, where everybody sits alone on a stool and silently sips a whiskey, but the real everyday kind, where young people go to interact with others, loosen their inhibitions and, frequently, flirt? What did he think was going to happen?

May we also remind him that bars are for drinking and restaurants for eating, which means mask wearing — the gold standard for controlling coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control — is out for the most part while you’re inside. And circulating servers certainly don’t help anything by touching dishware at different tables without washing their hands in between (side suggestion: Stop refilling water glasses; just leave a jug on the table for guests to handle themselves).

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We can hear some of you now, rightfully pointing out that “It’s the economy, stupid!” Of course Governor Hogan wanted Maryland to reopen as soon as possible; making ends meet as jobs disappear has been a massive struggle for thousands, particularly those in the retail, hospitality and service industries. We get it; we want stuff open, too, but safely. Otherwise, they just have to shut back down.

COVID-19 cases are still breaking out at places that aren’t even flouting the rules, with several city restaurants cycling between open and closed as workers become ill. And some other bars and restaurants and their patrons — a “small segment of willful violators,” as Governor Hogan called them — have shown they can’t handle the responsibility of protecting themselves and others.

So, what now? Statistics haven’t been enough to convince many young adults of the dangers they face from COVID-19, even though they account for at least 60 deaths in Maryland. And we can’t force them to care about the vulnerable people they could kill by passing on the disease; we don’t have time for an empathy lesson.

The governor wants local leaders to take control, calling on health departments, liquor boards and law enforcement to warn, fine or shut down violators individually, which sounds like a logistical nightmare. These are the same local leaders he punted coronavirus decision-making to this spring, then taunted when they didn’t reopen fast enough for his liking.

Perhaps he could instead do what he said he was going to when it comes to protecting the population during the pandemic: Make decisions and base them on data. He was good at that, when he did it. Other states have had to reverse course when the numbers showed it the right thing to do. While that might earn the governor an “I told you so” or two, perhaps even from one of his top advisers who warned last month that we were moving too fast, there’s no shame in admitting a mistake, especially if it saves lives.

Maryland isn’t even sure if it can send children back to school to get their constitutionally guaranteed educations, we should be at least as skeptical about the ability of bars to provide and enforce the proper precautions for patrons. And when they show they can’t, we need the governor to put his foot down.

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

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