After a meeting Friday that lasted more than six hours and included testimony from over 100 people — from stay-at-home moms to business owners to candidates for office to doctors — the Anne Arundel County Council voted against allowing County Executive Steuart Pittman to extend his seven-day mask mandate or COVID-19 state of emergency.
Only hours later, council members started getting calls from Anne Arundel County Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman telling them he was overriding their decision and extending the mandate to the end of the month. The mandate requires residents to wear masks in indoor public spaces and crowded outdoor places.
This was done through a public safety order under state law. The law gives the county health officer the ability to do whatever is necessary to reduce the spread of infectious diseases, County Attorney Gregory Swain said.
“The health officer is a local health officer, but he serves to enforce state law,” Swain said. “So that’s where his authority comes from.”
State statute 18-208 subsection B of the general health article of the Maryland Code gives authority to the health officer to do what he or she deems necessary to combat the spread of disease. Subsection B reads in part: “When a health officer is notified of an infectious or contagious disease within the county, the health officer shall act immediately to prevent the spread of the disease.”
Additionally, under the Maryland Code of Regulations 10.06.01.06: “The secretary or a health officer shall: Take any action or measure necessary to prevent the spread of communicable disease or to control a reportable disease and condition; and issue, when necessary, special instructions for control of a disease or condition.”
“Under the authority of both of those provisions, the health officer issued this order,” Swain said.
Swain acknowledged the code leaves a lot of room for interpretation.
“It is broad,” Swain said. “It basically says, ‘Take any action or measure necessary to prevent the spread of communicable disease.’ So the way we would interpret that is as long as there is a reasonable nexus between the action the health officer is taking and the spread of a communicable disease, we would feel that it would be authorized.”
Kalyanaraman said he uses this power with great care and only in the most extreme circumstances.
“I think it’s important to be judicious in how that power is used,” he said.
After discussing the county’s options with the Maryland Department of Health, the county executive and members of the County Council, he said it seemed like the best choice.
“It was a really tough decision but after consulting with all of those folks and then our Office of Law and looking at statute, that was what led to this decision to put this into place for a limited period of time,” Kalyanaraman said, adding that he sincerely hopes he does not have to issue another public safety order during the pandemic.
Republicans on the council said they weren’t thrilled he even did it this time.
“His actions have shaken the faith in county residents who believe in a fair and transparent process by the legislators they elected, and added additional stress and confusion for our business owners,” said council member Amanda Fiedler, R-Arnold.
All three Republicans issued a joint statement in which they stood by their decision to vote against the mandate.
“The most vulnerable to the effects of COVID have been fully or partially vaccinated. That, plus extensive voluntary mask wearing, give me great trust in our county residents to make the best health decisions for themselves, their families and our community,” Nathan Volke, R-Pasadena, said in the statement.
Jessica Haire, R-Edgewater, echoed his sentiment.
“Our overall vaccination rate is nearly 70%, and at this point we need to believe in the residents of our county to make the best health decisions for themselves. Now is the time to focus on increased testing and support for hospital staff,” Haire said in the statement.
Though they may disagree with the approach, the immediate need to lessen the burden on local hospitals is something Republicans and Democrats on the council and the health officer are prioritizing.
“The hospitals are under extraordinary pressure,” Kalyanaraman said. “They have not faced anything like this during COVID or really any other time. I think extraordinary situations require us as a community to support these civic institutions.”
Kalyanaraman said he plans to reevaluate the masking situation once his order expires at the end of the month.
Meanwhile, council Democrats said they were disappointed in their colleagues and relieved when they got the call from Kalyanaraman about the public safety order.
“We seem to be the only large Maryland county that failed to come together in the name of public health and safety,” said Allison Pickard, D-Glen Burnie. “I certainly understand how [Kalyanaraman] felt bound by his duties to take the necessary action to protect our health care system and our most vulnerable community members.”
Lisa Rodvien, D-Annapolis, added that she thought the health officer’s decision was beyond necessary at this stage.
“Unfortunately, not one of my Republican colleagues recognized the dire situation our local hospitals are facing,” Rodvien said. “I am nonetheless grateful that Dr. Kalyanaraman used the authority granted to him under state code to extend the mandate. A public health crisis like the current pandemic is exactly the right time for a health officer to step in and act to protect the community.”
Andrew Pruski, D-Gambrills, also voted to extend the mandate but did not reply to requests for comment Monday.
Sarah Lacey, D-Jessup, said she had been hearing criticism of the decision since it was made Friday, saying it was undemocratic as Kalyanaraman is not an elected official and the council members are, though Kalyanaraman was appointed by the county executive and then confirmed by the council in an unanimous vote, and approved by the Maryland health secretary.
“We’ve been getting tons of emails from people who think this is totally anti-democratic, what he’s done, and I completely disagree. I actually think it’s wise policy that’s been put in at the state level,” Lacey said. “Our local elected officials had the chance to respond to our health care emergency and they did — each one of us voted how we felt and now, thankfully, we have somebody else who can come at it from a nonpolitical point of view.”