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A new low: harassing health inspectors over COVID restrictions | COMMENTARY

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman announced Thursday new restrictions for restaurants and bars and limited social gatherings to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Also pictured, county Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman announced Thursday new restrictions for restaurants and bars and limited social gatherings to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Also pictured, county Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman. (Brooks DuBose)

How are health inspectors rewarded in Anne Arundel County for trying to protect people’s health and curb spread of the coronavirus? They are harassed to the point that the Anne Arundel County Health Department now worries about the safety of these workers. The tenor has gotten so bad that women inspectors can’t go out on their own, and the county is temporarily stopping some enforcement. The county police have been called out to diffuse particularly volatile encounters.

It’s just the latest example of the wanton disregard for rules and regulations adopted in response to the pandemic and shows how far the public discourse over COVID-19 has fallen. Even as cases soar in Maryland and around the country, too many people still won’t accept the dire health implications of the disease and instead take mask wearing, social distancing and restrictions on the size of gatherings as a personal affront and threat to their freedoms and constitutional rights. Caught in the dangerous crossfire are workers simply doing their jobs.

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Around the country retail workers enforcing mask and other COVID rules have been sucker punched and endured other physical assaults or verbal barrages from enraged customers. The worst cases have involved guns, including one incident in Pennsylvania in which a cigar worker was shot at after asking a customer to wear a mask. The shooter was arrested on attempted murder charges. In Anne Arundel County, health inspectors looking into violations at The Birdcage in Glen Burnie that included unmasked people and exceeding the allowed capacity were “verbally berated,” and one inspector’s photo was later posted on Facebook. The caption under the photo: “ALL BARS!! Keep your eye out for this piece of (expletive redacted)!”

It’s no surprise people feel emboldened, given we’re seeing the same kind of acrimony from the White House and in the halls of Congress. Earlier this week, Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) got into a heated discussion over mask wearing.

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“I’d start by asking the presiding officer to please wear a mask as he speaks,” Senator Brown chastised. To which Senator Sullivan responded: “I don’t wear a mask when I’m speaking like most senators. I don’t need your instruction.”

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman has said fear of “civil unrest” has made him uneasy about too aggressive enforcement. But local governments need to ignore all the noise and focus on what’s most important: stopping the growing number of coronavirus cases. And they must protect the people hired to do this. Maryland reported more than 2,000 new coronavirus cases Wednesday, the third time the number of cases has reached such heights in the past five days, putting pressure on the health care system. We don’t want to reach the point where there aren’t enough hospital beds and respirators to treat patients. We also don’t want to see anyone else die. One death is one too many from a disease that we can control to a large degree with small changes to our lives.

Now is not the time for public officials to let their guards down or be deterred by intimidation tactics. People must obey the law, and if they don’t they should be held accountable, whether through fines and citations, suspension of liquor licenses or assault charges when applicable. Other states have had to take extreme measures to protect workers, including in Illinois, which passed a law last summer making it so anyone who assaults an employee enforcing the use of masks and other measures in the name of public health can be charged with aggravated battery.

We know many businesses are doing the right thing even as their revenues suffer. We applaud them. For those other, less understanding business owners, we ask them to think about the lives of people they are putting in danger with practices that could contribute to the spread of COVID-19. Not to mention, they could catch it themselves and take the virus home to their families. And have some compassion for workers simply doing their jobs. Publicly shaming a health inspector is mean-spirited and targeting women sexist. Neither will do anything to change the restrictions that have been put in place. Only bringing the number of cases down will do that.

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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