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Back-and-forth over Senator Theatre’s reopening puts Maryland’s patchwork approach to COVID-19 on display

Baltimore's Senator Theatre, shown June 22, 2020, plans to reopen Friday after being briefly caught up in confusion over restrictions in Maryland to help limit the spread of the coronavirus. City leaders were surprised when Gov. Larry Hogan said theaters could open Friday. They initially said that wouldn't be the case in Baltimore before relenting.
Baltimore's Senator Theatre, shown June 22, 2020, plans to reopen Friday after being briefly caught up in confusion over restrictions in Maryland to help limit the spread of the coronavirus. City leaders were surprised when Gov. Larry Hogan said theaters could open Friday. They initially said that wouldn't be the case in Baltimore before relenting. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

After Gov. Larry Hogan announced Tuesday he would allow entertainment venues to reopen, the Senator Theatre in North Baltimore quickly updated its website: It would host a Friday night showing of “Tenet” for a limited audience.

A day after Hogan issued his order, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young held a press conference where he said the city would take a slower approach to lifting coronavirus-related restrictions. Nothing would change here, the Democratic mayor said, even when new state rules went into effect Friday at 5 p.m.

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The Senator deleted the showtimes from its website. But in a Facebook post later Wednesday, the theater declared it would, in fact, resume operations.

“We’re looking forward to seeing you at the movies!” the owners wrote, alongside a link explaining the safety precautions they are taking.

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The mayor’s administration balked at first, threatening enforcement should the Senator open. Finally, around 10 p.m. Wednesday, Young decided that theaters could reopen after all — albeit at a more limited capacity than Hogan would allow.

The regulatory whiplash displayed by the Senator situation is a symptom of Maryland’s patchwork approach to handling the COVID-19 pandemic. After Hogan announced his latest reopening plans, Young’s administration scrambled to respond, while under intense pressure from business owners desperate to open and public health officials urging caution.

County leaders are grappling with the knowledge that people likely will cross county lines into less restrictive areas, potentially diluting the public health impact of restrictions while disadvantaging their local businesses.

The Republican governor does not always brief the mayor and Maryland’s 23 county executives before making sweeping decisions that impact them all, some local leaders have said, and he has not participated in weekly conference calls with them since May. They say they often find out the details from Hogan’s public announcement.

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Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci said Thursday that the governor’s team is frequently in touch with the mayor and county executives.

”Our discussions with county leaders are daily and going, with opportunities to address questions and concerns,” Ricci said in a statement.

While Hogan gives individual jurisdictions the authority to move more slowly, the nuance of that doesn’t always carry over to people watching the governor on TV, many of whom are eager for a go-ahead to get some sense of normalcy.

It’s led to frustrations in the state’s most populous — and hardest-hit — jurisdictions. They often chose to move more slowly than the state in reopening. They need time to assess the situation in their counties before letting residents know what effect the state’s action will, or won’t, have on them.

“It’s so much better if there’s a coordinated message,” said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a former federal, state and city health official. Without it, he said, “the risk is that people tune out and they don’t take it as seriously as they might.”

Democratic Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, like Young, said Wednesday he would not advance his jurisdiction into Phase 3 of the state’s recovery plan.

“I’m disappointed because none of the elected officials in the state got consulted on this,” Elrich said during a briefing. “Nobody asked us, ’What do we know? What do we think? What are you hearing? What are you experiencing?’”

Ricci said Hogan’s announcement Tuesday “included notifying leaders beforehand.” He did not respond to a follow-up question asking for specifics. In addition to Elrich, officials in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties said they were surprised by the news that Hogan was moving the state along in its recovery plan.

Ricci also said that some steps the state has taken are in response to local leaders’ feedback. For example, he pointed to last week’s announcement of health benchmarks that school systems should consider when deciding whether to resume in-person classes. Local leaders had sought such guidance, but many said it came too close to the start of the school year to help make plans.

Hogan’s announcement after 4:30 p.m. Tuesday loosened restrictions on religious services and allowed movie theaters and live entertainment to reopen Friday at 50% capacity, or up to 100 people at indoor venues and 250 at outdoor venues, whichever is less.

Young already had a news conference scheduled for the next morning. The first question was about what reopening would look like in Baltimore. The mayor said nothing would change Friday in the city, but that next week, restaurants would be allowed more indoor seating. He promised more information at a later press conference.

In the absence of an updated city order, Senator co-owner Kathleen Lyon began parsing the law herself. Before taking over operation of Baltimore’s historic Senator and Charles theaters with her father, she spent five years as a city prosecutor.

Lyon said she interpreted an Aug. 7 city executive order — which permits indoor recreation facilities to reopen at 25% capacity — to apply to the Senator. The order specifically states it applies to places such as bowling alleys and casinos, as well as other establishments that pay an entertainment tax.

“It seems complicated, but it’s not,” Lyon said. “The language of the order is clear. It gives us permission to reopen.”

City Solicitor Dana Moore interpreted the law differently, saying she believed Young needed to specifically exempt movie theaters before they could open.

City officials went back and forth until about 10 p.m. Wednesday, debating the intent of the law and asking themselves: What makes a theater different from a casino? Or a restaurant? Is there an additional risk? Public health officials have warned that people are at greater risk of coronavirus transmission in indoor settings, particularly where there’s many people.

Ultimately, the mayor sided with the Senator. It was a relief for Lyon, who feared her business would be left behind if city residents flocked to movie theaters in surrounding counties on Labor Day weekend, traditionally one of the busiest of the year. After a movie’s opening weekend, she said, attendance declines on average by 50% each successive week.

“We have to open these theaters,” Lyon said. “We can’t stay closed when there’s a theater a mile away that’s going to reopen.”

In Baltimore County, where Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. is moving ahead with Phase 3, he specifically cited his desire not to disadvantage local businesses as part of his reasoning.

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“A patchwork approach to reopening only confuses residents, puts businesses who are just miles apart on unequal playing fields, and limits the public health impact of any individual jurisdiction’s decisions,” he said in a statement.

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Since Hogan’s announcement, Young has not yet signed a new order; Moore expects one to be published early next week. Drafting these legal documents takes time, and involves a cross section of agencies.

“It would be great if we had more advanced knowledge so we could set expectations as to Baltimore’s schedule,” said Moore, the city solicitor. “When there’s a gubernatorial executive order that looks like it’s going to give relief, but Baltimore isn’t ready to move, it can be very frustrating for businesses.”

Moore also said it’s vital for the city to be consistent in its messaging as it asks residents to remain vigilant against a virus that has interrupted their lives for months.

“The better we’re able to educate the public about, ’What does this mean for you?’” she said, “the greater the compliance.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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