Asked Tuesday about whether he was considering reinstating a statewide mask mandate, Gov. Larry Hogan said that it was not even on the table. What he might have said is that it was not “yet” on the table, but that he supported local governments that are taking steps in that direction — like Anne Arundel County, where beginning Thursday, anyone visiting a government building, including public libraries, must wear a mask.
And he might have gone further and ordered state employees to get the vaccine (and provide proof of it) or be tested weekly. That’s hardly going out on a limb, given that President Joe Biden has done the same for federal workers (many thousands of whom live in Maryland) and that others, including Comptroller Peter Franchot who is running to be Maryland’s next governor, have already called for exactly that.
He did urge the unvaccinated to get vaccinated “to avoid dying,” but 18 months into this thing, we’re beyond urging and suggesting. It’s time to consider mandating. As the governor himself noted in a separate interview with WBAL Tuesday discussing Raven Lamar Jackson’s second round of COVID: “With the rules the NFL put down, I can’t imagine a team wanting to forfeit a game and lose a chance at the playoffs and none of the players getting paid because somebody won’t get a vaccine.”
Put down some rules, governor.
Across the nation, vaccine, mask and testing mandates are on the rise for public employees, including the military. On Wednesday, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a mask mandate for school and state staff, and a vaccine mandate for state employees working in congregate settings. Governors in North Carolina, California and New York have also implemented vaccine-or-else mandates, with the “else” being masks and regular testing, for certain government workers (though New York’s Andrew Cuomo may be somewhat too distracted to enforce his at the moment). And Oregon is reportedly examining a vaccine mandate. Even certain large private employers like Google, Tyson Foods and Kaiser Permanente have gone that route.
It’s not difficult to understand why. The delta variant has fundamentally changed the outlook for the late-game COVID-19 pandemic. It’s spreading rapidly, and doctors are anecdotally noting that unvaccinated younger people are getting “sicker, quicker” than last year. Even the vaccinated are not completely immune (although breakthrough cases — like that of a local epidemiologist who caught COVID at a party, along with 10 other vaccinated guests — rarely result in hospitalizations or death). Add in the recently revised guidance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urging people to wear masks indoors in parts of the country where transmission rates are high, and there is ample reason for added caution. It’s not enough to simply call on Americans to get vaccinated or to offer incentives like direct payments, lotteries or college scholarships: There needs to be some “stick” to go with all those carrots.
The governor is prone to bragging about the Maryland’s relatively high statewide vaccination rate compared to others, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. In communities like Darlington (45%), the Eastern Shore’s Pocomoke City (43.9%), Western Maryland’s Cumberland (42.3%) and Baltimore’s Druid Hill (35.4%), less than half of eligible people are fully vaccinated. Mr. Hogan himself had to be personally tested Tuesday after attending the Cecil County Fair, where a suspected outbreak is under investigation. Thankfully, he tested negative, but it’s clear that there are limits to how far voluntary policies can go.
Of course, the situation could be worse. At least Maryland is not Florida, where hospitals are becoming so crowded by delta variant cases that other non-emergency medical needs are being set aside. And Mr. Hogan, thankfully, is not Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who issued an executive order last week prohibiting school mask mandates — a direct undermining of public health to please an ill-informed political constituency.
The good news is that even some of the more right-wing Republicans appear to be turning a corner on this, with some GOP governors and their allies now more aggressively promoting the shots, perhaps recognizing that they need their supporters alive to vote. Yet how many more hospitalizations and deaths will it require for Republican leaders to take the next step with mask and vaccine mandates? Is there an exact body count required?
In a nation where people have long accepted common sense restrictions for the public good (from licensing and insuring drivers to requiring childhood immunizations), this misplaced reluctance to use a safe and effective vaccine or to don a mask, borders on the infantile. President Biden had it exactly right when on Tuesday he called on governors to help or “get out of the way.” Mr. Hogan has been mostly helpful, but there’s more to be done in a state that has seen its own worrisome tripling of COVID-19 hospitalizations over the past month. A bit more political backbone is in order.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.