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When Md. bars and restaurants are a higher priority than schools, everyone loses | COMMENTARY

Gov. Larry Hogan gives a COVID-19 update from Annapolis, Maryland.
Gov. Larry Hogan gives a COVID-19 update from Annapolis, Maryland. (Christine Condon)

It has been demonstrated across the globe that there is no pattern between schools reopening and an increase in COVID-19 infection rates. But bars and restaurants have shown to be linked to outbreaks, and our governor continues to push for them to remain open. Why are Marylanders tolerating this disconnect?

Local jurisdictions, such as Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County, have been ahead of the state in imposing stricter restrictions in their regions because they are tired of waiting for the governor to step up. Gov. Larry Hogan announced small increases on restrictions in November (dropping indoor dining capacity to 50% and closing bars and restaurants between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., for example), but none were to the level that Maryland experienced in the March lockdowns when our COVID-19 indicators were similar to what they are now. Why does the state prioritize access to bars, restaurants and gyms rather than supporting the conditions for schools to reopen safely?

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Maryland school districts are being asked to develop reopening plans within a broader pandemic environment over which they have very little control. Safe reopening conditions take more than hand sanitizer and temperature checks. They require restricting the activities that actually drive community transmission. Our colleagues have been drawing attention to the trade-offs of reopening schools versus everything else for some time. Governor Hogan and state health officials are in the position to make the safe return to in-person education possible. Instead, we are expecting school districts to balance learning needs, equity and COVID-19 response largely on their own — all while cases and hospitalizations are steadily increasing.

Asking school districts to plan for every contingency, retrofit buildings and equip themselves, with limited budgets, while the state government takes very incremental — and ultimately ineffective — action to curb community transmission is counterproductive. Let’s be clear: If COVID-19 numbers keep increasing and districts cannot implement their plans, families should direct their frustration at the governor, not the school districts.

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We are public health researchers who study how diseases impact vulnerable communities and explore how public health interacts with politics. We believe that more restrictions on social interactions are necessary to curb the current surge, and waiting to act only delays the inevitable.

But restrictions will not affect all of us equally. Families, kids, teachers and school staff are bearing the burden of school closures. Women are often primarily responsible for balancing virtual learning and their own workload; their mental health is suffering, and they are dropping out of the workforce. We have the privilege of flexible work schedules and stable housing, and yet we still struggle to juggle our work and child care responsibilities. We can imagine that this crisis has hit single parents, families whose caregivers are essential workers, low income households and communities of color so much harder.

Folks working in service industries, many of whom are people of color and living on the edge of poverty, are already very hard hit by the pandemic. If we expect them to not only survive but still be here and well when we are ready to reopen, then they need more economic relief. And that seems to be the challenge: In order to shut down again, the state will need to financially invest in the hardest hit Marylanders and Maryland businesses at significant levels to help them stay afloat.

This month, Governor Hogan announced an additional $180 million in economic relief for state businesses, bringing the total to more than $600 million thus far. And he promised to seek a larger relief package during the coming legislative session. That’s necessary, yes, but so is shutting down the opportunity for transmission.

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Governor Hogan needs to take the necessary measures to control COVID-19 spread in Maryland right away to curb our epidemic and create the conditions necessary for our kids to get back in the classroom. Just telling schools to reopen is not enough. They, too, need real economic support so they can reopen safely.

Responding to COVID-19 requires attention and flexibility to changing dynamics in community transmission, but also the political will to follow through when difficult choices are necessary.

When will Governor Hogan start governing Maryland with our families and children in mind?

Daniela C. Rodríguez (dcrodriguez1979@gmail.com) is an associate scientist and Michelle R. Kaufman is an assistant professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University (JHU). Any viewpoints, opinions, or positions expressed are those of the authors signing this editorial and are not official positions of JHU or endorsed or approved by JHU. Also contributing to this op-ed are fellow faculty members Mary Cwik, Amanda Debes, Elizabeth Hazel, Melinda Munos, Rashelle Musci, Sarah Murray, Kawsar Talaat and Emma Williams.

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