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Baltimore elections officials scale back plans to temperature check every voter

Baltimore City election officials no longer plan to check the temperature of every voter who chooses to cast a ballot in person this fall, but may still do so with voters at higher risk for COVID-19 exposure.

That decision, which was based on advice from state and city health officials, comes just days before early voting is set to begin across the state.

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Until Thursday, Baltimore officials planned to temperature screen every voter that walked into an in-person voting center. Anyone with a high temperature was to be escorted to a segregated area, potentially outside, where they would be able to vote away from others.

Now, voters will be asked a series of screening questions before they enter, including whether they feel sick and whether they may have been exposed to the coronavirus. Voters who answer yes may have their temperature checked and be segregated from other voters, said Armstead Jones, city elections director.

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“They said they were afraid it would hold up the lines,” Jones said of city and state health officials. “But they’re still asking those critical questions.”

“The point was to try to be proactive and to try to catch stuff before it got started.”

Until this point, state election officials have left it up to each of Maryland’s county election offices to decide what kinds of health safety measures to implement at their voting centers during the pandemic. Voters can expect to see some combination of plexiglass shields, socially distanced lines and frequent sanitation of equipment.

But Baltimore was alone in planning for temperature checks, Jones said, although it was considered by several other jurisdictions.

“We were out there by ourselves in the end,” Jones said.

While temperature checks have become an increasingly common part of the pandemic landscape, local health and election officials questioned their use for Baltimore’s election.

Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, said last week that temperature screenings would be an ineffective way to identify voters who may be contagious because fever is a late-developing symptom of COVID-19.

Wen instead recommended social distancing and cleaning measures similar to those that Baltimore and other jurisdictions already plan to implement.

Joanne Antoine, executive director of voting rights advocacy group Common Cause Maryland, cautioned last week that temperature checks would lead to longer wait times for in-person voting.

Election officials are gearing up for possible long lines at voting centers as early voting begins Monday. Additional voting centers have been added since the June primary and the state has pushed voters to cast mail-in ballots instead, returning them via mail or placing them in ballot drop boxes.

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