GOP Lawmakers From Rural Areas Want Hogan to Ease Restrictions

A view of the Maryland State House from the Miller Senate Office Building. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Republican lawmakers from parts of Maryland that have seen fewer cases of COVID-19 infection are pushing back against the restrictions imposed on residents and businesses by the Hogan administration.

They are responding in large part to complaints from business owners who’ve been ordered to close and from constituents who believe that the state’s stay-at-home orders are unnecessary in communities outside Maryland’s larger population centers.

On Thursday Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) received a letter from a dozen influential business organizations — including the state’s Chamber of Commerce, NFIB Maryland and the Maryland Retailers Association — pressing him to offer more “flexibility” for businesses.

The pushback on the state’s chief executive appeared to ramp up on Thursday, one day after he ordered consumers who shop in grocery stores, pharmacies and other essential retailers to begin wearing masks.

“Some of these measures are draconian,” said Del. Barrie S. Ciliberti (R-Frederick). “Now the state’s telling me I have to wear a face mask come Saturday? I’m not even sure that’s constitutional.”

“We’re not New York City,” Del. Barrie S. Ciliberti (R-Frederick) said.

“We’re not New York City, and the proverbial one shoe does not fit all,” the lawmaker added, a reference to the national epicenter of COVID-19 fatalities.

Del. William J. Wivell (R-Washington) said it “makes a lot of sense that we have some regional flexibility” to business closings and restrictions on social interaction.

“When you look at areas that are heavily impacted and have a high number of cases, I think it makes sense to continue to have stricter guidelines or regulations, versus those who are potentially more rural (and) less populated,” he said.

A Western Maryland lawmaker who wished not to be named noted that the state’s three westernmost counties, Garrett, Allegany and Washington, have had just one COVID-19 fatality combined.

The letter from the coalition of business groups cautioned Hogan against “a one-size-fits-all approach to this crisis [that] could be a disservice to public health and to the economy.”

“The strength of Maryland’s economy is based on its diversity and includes many sectors including agriculture, manufacturing, hospitality, biotech, among others. Each of these and the businesses within them face unique challenges that will require unique solutions and flexibility based on their needs,” the letter added.

In a sharply-worded letter to Hogan on Thursday, Del. Daniel L. Cox (R-Frederick) challenged the governor to provide the legal basis for his “unprecedented unilateral action” to require masks in stores.

An attorney, Cox said the statute Hogan cited in his order “does not state you have this authority to seize or take charge of the physical bodies of healthy persons or businesses not involved in healthcare.”

“Recommendations are fine, but the statute is devoid of such police powers,” Cox wrote.

Claiming that the state’s restrictions have hurt businesses that could operate safely and infringed on those who wish to “boat, fish, hunt or recreate on a golf course,” he accused Hogan of trampling on the Bill of Rights. “What reasonable basis do you proffer for preventing safe work and fresh air fun?” he asked.

A Hogan spokesman declined requests for comment on Thursday.

On Wednesday Hogan strongly defended the steps the state has taken to limit social interaction. Doing so, public health officials have consistently maintained, is necessary to keep the rate of coronavirus infection from outpacing the ability of hospitals to care for people who become seriously ill.

Hogan noted that Maryland has yet to hit its COVID-19 peak and likely won’t for a period of days.

“Now would be the worst time to take our foot off the accelerator,” he told reporters.

The governor, who chairs the National Governors Association, reiterated his belief in social distancing Thursday on NBC’s “Today Show.”

“We’re still heading up that curve,” he said. “It would really be the worst possible time for us to put more people out there are endanger them.”

Hogan told reporters on Wednesday that his staff, the health experts he’s consulting and the nation’s other governors have been talking about how to reopen the economy and relax social distancing restrictions — and that they’ve been pulling together a set of “must-haves” for that to occur.

Chief among them: more COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, sufficient hospital bed space and more personal protective equipment.

“Everybody wants to get our economy back and get people back to work and get our small businesses open,” he told NBC, “but we also want to make sure we do it in a safe way, and we’re not just ramping things back up and endangering the lives of thousands of people.”

On Thursday Hogan participated in another conference call with President Trump. Afterward, the president acknowledged that governors have the legal right to make decisions about schools, businesses and social restrictions, an abrupt reversal from comments he made earlier in the week.

While Hogan’s moves have generated consistent praise from state lawmakers of both parties, legislators who represent conservative portions of Maryland have been getting an earful from constituents who appreciate Trump’s impatience to get the U.S. open again.

Some intend to push Hogan on Friday to ease up on recreational activities like golf, fishing and horseback riding, which lawmakers believe can be done safely. Others are sympathetic to car wash owners and other merchants who feel they can open without risking public health.

“We’ve got to get to a point where we’re opening things back up,” said Wivell. “It’s been pretty detrimental to commerce. If we don’t soon do something, a lot of these businesses are going to close for good.”

“President Trump made the comment [recently] that the cure can’t be worse than the disease itself,” Wivell added. “And the longer we stay closed, the longer that potential has to exist.”

Many rural lawmakers are pushing what they see as a common sense, small-government approach.

“My view is, if you’re sick, stay home. If you’re feeling like you’re sick, stay home,” said Ciliberti. “And if not, go on about your daily business. And have the mom-and-pops, and the other businesses, adjust their schedules as they see fit. … Let the businesses decide.”

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Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He's a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.