Opinion: Termination of Emergency Mandates Leaves Vulnerable Populations at Risk

Emergency Mandates
Sean Gallup/Getty Images photo via Michigan Advance.

On June 15, Gov. Larry Hogan announced that Maryland’s coronavirus state of emergency would end today, July 1. This will effectively terminate all emergency mandates and restrictions, including mask orders. Although the number of COVID cases has dropped, this still leaves many unvaccinated and vulnerable populations at risk.

That day, the Baltimore City health commissioner said, “I’m aware that many will view this as the end of the pandemic. However, I want to be clear, while we have made significant progress as evidenced by our COVID-19 metrics, the public health threat of coronavirus remains high for our unvaccinated population specifically.”

We agree.

Maryland’s Eastern Shore counties, where food and farm workers are concentrated, are among the lowest vaccination rates in the state — Dorchester at 43.7%, Somerset at 34.7% and Wicomico at 40.3%, as of June 30.

Maryland has made great progress in overcoming COVID-19, but let’s not start our victory dance five yards out. As Marylanders enjoy summer vacations and the return to normalcy of eating inside restaurants, be aware of the essential workers who have kept everything going throughout the pandemic without mandated protections, literally putting their life on the line to serve up french fries, keep chicken and crab on your table, and fetch your groceries.

Hogan’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, while strong at first, treats essential workers as disposable for economic convenience.

Advocates have been asking for an emergency temporary standard (ETS) throughout the entire pandemic, including in May, July and September 2020. The General Assembly took action where Gov. Hogan failed, and passed HB581, one of the aspects requiring an emergency temporary standard for workplaces, but only during a state of emergency.

RELATED READING: What Workers Could Gain from the Md. Essential Workers’ Protection Act

The week the state was required by statute to issue an emergency temporary standard, Gov. Hogan announced that he would end the state of emergency.

As the economy opens back up, an ETS is as important as it ever was.

Infections, hospitalizations and deaths are down amongst those who have been vaccinated, but COVID-19 remains a threat especially to the immunocompromised and others who are not yet vaccinated.

Former White House senior adviser for COVID-19 response Andy Slavitt said on June 16 that the COVID-19 Delta variant is “like COVID on steroids.” From national and state reports, we know that the meatpacking industry was, and continues to be, a hotspot for infections, although Maryland doesn’t publicly collect that data. Furthermore, with the emergence of variants, it is prudent for the state to set a standard to keep essential workers safe at work and minimize the opportunity for infection that could shut our economy down again.

The Delta variant accounts for nearly 10% of all new COVID-19 infections in the U.S.

Already, the CDC has reported a linked cluster of COVID variant cases in Maryland that spread through the infected individuals’ workplaces.

So far, the COVID vaccine has significant effectiveness against the Delta variant. Yet the Hogan administration remains unconcerned, failing to increase vaccination availability for low-income employees. If food and meatpacking workers remain unvaccinated, they are severely at risk for catching the disease.

This is especially critical as Gov. Hogan has rejected the expanded unemployment insurance offered by the federal government. The governor has signaled that it is time for Marylanders to take whatever employment is available to them, no matter their home or health circumstances.

In addition, the governor has lifted the mask mandate with no community immunity reached to date. Without safety requirements in place for all essential workers there is no way to ensure a safe workplace.

It’s nice to return to normalcy but returning to normalcy with an emergency temporary standard that keeps essential workers healthy enables the economy to stay up, while taking prudent public health action to manage a global pandemic that continues to mutate.

We want to repeat that. An emergency temporary standard keeps workers safe at work.

It is a set of requirements so workers have reduced risk for exposure to COVID-19. It doesn’t force businesses to close, it is just a simple set of requirements to offer workers a modicum of protection during a global pandemic, where it is in all of our best interests to discourage new infections.

— MARYLANDERS FOR FOOD AND FARM WORKER PROTECTION

The coalition is a broad, diverse group which uses advocacy, grassroots organizing and public education to win basic health and safety rights and protections for the poultry workers, crab pickers and field workers rendered vulnerable by our industrialized food system.