Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) on Friday defended his decisions to secure Marylanders’ public health as a newly-formed group fed up with COVID-19-inspired restrictions on businesses and the state’s stay-at-home orders said it will hold a protest event this weekend in Annapolis.
“This isn’t just about your rights or protecting yourself,” Hogan said during a news conference outside the State House Friday afternoon. “It’s about protecting your neighbors. The best science that we have shows that people might not know that they’re carriers of the virus, and through no fault of their own they could infect other people.”
“Spreading this disease infringes on your neighbor’s rights,” Hogan added.
The group, #ReOpenMD, formed on Facebook last weekend, lead organizer Evie Harris said in an interview. By Friday it had attracted nearly 18,000 members and was “working feverishly” to make its Saturday protest a success.
“We are calling it Operation Gridlock Annapolis,” she said. “We are protesting the shutdown. We want the shutdown to end.”
A nurse who lives in the Baltimore area, Harris said the state should allow businesses to reopen on May 1.
Half of the people who joined the group have lost their job because of the forced shutdown of non-essential businesses or their spouse has lost work. Many have lost their health insurance as a result.
“Even after the virus settles down, the rest of us still have to go on,” Harris said. “The devastations that this is causing, it’s going to be pretty tough — if not impossible, in some cases — for people to recover.”
Jim Wass, the chairman of the Prince George’s County Republican Party and a member of the ReOpenMd leadership team, said he decided to join the group after Hogan ordered people to wear masks when shopping at grocery stores and pharmacies or riding on public transportation. That rule takes effect at 7 a.m. Saturday.
“The 100% mask requirement was the one that really ticked me off,” he said. “That was too much and it was too broad in my mind.”
The formation of the protest group isn’t the first pressure Hogan has received to reopen the state’s economy. On Thursday, a dozen influential business organizations — including the state’s Chamber of Commerce, NFIB Maryland and the Maryland Retailers Association — sent Hogan a letter urging him to offer more “flexibility” for businesses. Republican lawmakers from rural parts of the state have been questioning why statewide restrictions should apply in sparsely-populated areas where the virus has not made many people sick.
Joining Hogan at his news conference Friday, State Superintendent of Schools Karen B. Salmon announced that Maryland schools, which were shuttered on March 13, will remain closed until at least May 15.
Hogan said he will unveil preliminary details of a plan to reopen the state’s economy, called “Maryland Strong: Roadmap to Recovery,” next week. It’s being developed in conjunction with the governor of Virginia and the mayor of Washington, D.C., he said, and it requires a two-week drop in hospitalization rates, the need for ICU beds and COVID-19-related deaths.
“All three of those categories have to be in a downward direction for 14 straight days before you can even consider the reopening of anything,” Hogan said. “And that’s according to the federal guidelines for any state in America.”
The head of a real estate firm before becoming governor, who has made promoting business a key part of his agenda, Hogan said he understands the frustrations people have with the stay-at-home order and the restrictions on businesses. He described several of the steps Maryland has taken to provide relief to businesses and their workers.
Hogan said that $8 million of Maryland’s COVID-19 Layoff Aversion Fund, part of the state’s $175 million relief package, has been provided to 410 small businesses across the state, helping more than 9,000 workers keep their jobs. To date, the Maryland Department of Commerce has received more than 9,100 applications for the state’s $50 million COVID-19 relief loan fund and more than 20,200 applications for its $75 million COVID-19 relief grant fund.
Hogan announced that the state would contribute $4 million to the Maryland Food Bank and the Capital Area Food Bank and had secured financial commitments from local jurisdictions to match that total.
Harris said the ReOpenMd protest will take place along Rowe Boulevard and Church Circle on Saturday from noon until 2 p.m. She expects a couple thousand people to attend, though she conceded that turnout is impossible to predict. Because of the restrictions on social interaction, protesters are being encouraged to remain in their cars.
Harris said most of the group’s leaders are first-time organizers and have never met. “We are overwhelmed and excited. We’re looking for a lot of good to come out of this.”
Wass, the head of the Prince George’s GOP, described Hogan as “not my first choice for anything.” He said the governor should have approached COVID-19 by starting with “the least restrictive method,” not the “most restrictive.”
“When you are denying people things, that’s not neutral. That’s a cost. You are inflicting pain,” he said. “It’s a great cost and it’s going to be a lasting cost if people don’t regain their livelihoods.”