Reopening in a Pandemic: Make It Make Sense

Gov. Larry Hogan roiled people who still have common sense Thursday when he said that Maryland residents should go out in a still raging pandemic and enjoy Easter weekend. 

“It’s great for people all over Maryland to drive to Salisbury to get vaccinated,” he said at a press conference held yesterday. “We want to encourage far more people to do that. Like, this is Easter weekend; it’s a big weekend for Ocean City. I think if you haven’t gotten a vaccine. You want one, I would say, get in your car tomorrow, drive to the beach, stop in Salisbury, get everybody vaccinated, and then go to Ocean City and get some Thrasher’s French fries, stay for the weekend and go to Easter brunch on Sunday morning.” 

Hogan’s assertion is both untrue and unsafe: with both the Pfizer and Moderna versions of the vaccine, recipients must get two doses of the vaccine and then wait two weeks to be considered fully vaccinated. With the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, recipients are considered vaccinated two weeks after a single dose. If someone was to go to Ocean City after getting a dose, they would still be at high risk of contracting and spreading the virus. 

In a press statement, the Lower Shore Progressive Caucus, which represents the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland, condemned Hogan’s statements. 

“With Covid Cases once again over 6% and rising across the Lower Eastern Shore and so many of our residents waiting to receive their shots, many of which are frontline workers, over 60 years old, or have pre-existing conditions, the Governor’s comments are nothing short of irresponsible and dangerous,” they said.

Hogan’s statements were bad, but we can’t blame what appears to be increasing capriciousness around COVID-19 only on Republicans, because Democrats have also been dropping the ball lately.

Mayor Brandon Scott held a press conference Thursday with Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa. At the conference, Dzirasa announced that Baltimore is averaging about 29 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents. That, she said, is a higher rate than both the state of Maryland and the US as a whole. Dzirasa said that the city is in the midst of a “new surge,” with the average new case count up 143% from four weeks ago and an average positivity count up 106% from four weeks ago. Despite these scary statistics, neither spoke about any further shutdown of city public life. For reference, the last time restaurant dining was shut down, the city was averaging 37 new cases per 100,000 people. This number is slightly higher than the average right now. However, city officials have not been super clear about how they make their decision. A rep for Scott told us “the Mayor will continue to assess the data with the health commissioner and our hospital partners on a regular basis.” At press time, they had not responded to further questions about the way this data is assessed.

It seems that instead of shutting down or being more clear, officials are shifting the burden of responsibility to the public.

Scott, who recently further loosened restrictions on activities like indoor and outdoor dining in the city, added that Baltimore citizens should take the virus seriously, noting that new variants were more harmful to younger adults. 

“There is no longer an excuse for ignorance,” Dzirasa said. She added that every time someone makes a bad decision “you are potentially pushing us one step back.”

However, Americans have been getting mixed messages about this pandemic from the very start. Then-President Donald Trump purposely obscured and downplayed any messaging that could have helped prevent the spread of the potentially deadly disease. But even now, with Trump out of office, scientists and doctors are still learning about it. Yesterday, for example, the CDC backtracked from statements by Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, suggesting that people vaccinated against the coronavirus can never become infected or transmit the virus to others. 

The good news is that people are slowly but surely being vaccinated. Marylanders 16 and older can now register for vaccine appointments and more residents are getting their shots. Still, we need a cultural shift if we want to make it safely through this crisis, and that shift needs to be led by the people we pay to run our institutions. 

The Baltimore Teachers Union has used #makeitmakesense as their hashtag and rallying cry to push for safer measures as Baltimore City Schools reopen, but it really applies to everyone, as public officials on both sides of the aisle push forward despite the deadly threat COVID-19 still poses to all of us.

Update from Mayor Scott’s office providing further details about how reopenings and closings are determined: The Mayor and Health Commissioner never focus solely on one number, but rather overall trends and patterns on positivity rates, deaths, and hospitalizations. Baltimore City has consistently made decisions at its own pace, as was appropriate according to the data and public health experts. The Mayor will continue to rely on the science and public health experts to lead Baltimore through the ongoing pandemic.


Police Reform In Annapolis: Make That Make Sense, Too  

You would be forgiven for not understanding what is happening in Annapolis to what seemed like, until recently, a sweeping police reform bill.

Over the past week, House speaker Adrienne Jones’ Police Reform and Accountability Act of 2021 (HB 670) has been debated and picked apart and delayed and stalled and criticized—mostly in bad faith—to such a degree that it is only because of the dogged reporting (and tweeting) of Maryland Matters reporter Hannah Gaskill that even we have any sense of what’s going on. As it was introduced, the Police Reform and Accountability Act of 2021 was to repeal the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, allow the Baltimore Police Department to become a city agency (it is currently a state agency and has been since the Civil War), reduce the use of “no knock” warrants, and more. 

So what is going on? The Police Reform and Accountability Act of 2021 has been subject to hours of debate in which Maryland Republicans worried about such things as police leaving the force if the reforms are too strong, and pushed back against a provision that would require mental health screenings for cops.

Late Thursday night, the Police Reform and Accountability Act of 2021 passed out of the chamber, although it has in some ways become a different bill. State Sen. Jill Carter, who has been advocating for changes to policing for nearly two decades, characterized the back-and-forth with the bill as the result of there being “two universes” in Annapolis: “The universe that I’m in? People cannot understand a separate set of rules and procedures for this one group of people that has never been held accountable.”


Will Paraphernalia Decriminalization Be Watered Down Next?

Pardon us, Battleground Baltimore readers, we’re feeling especially cynical this week. Both the Maryland House of Delegates and Maryland Senate passed bills that would decriminalize drug paraphernalia. The result would be that police would have one less reason to arrest some of the state’s most vulnerable people—people who use drugs. In Maryland, harm reduction workers have been arrested for possessing needles and people who use drugs are regularly harassed and not infrequently arrested for having paraphernalia such as needles. The Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition described a recent arrest that puts someone who is part of a syringe service program (SSP) and someone they were trying to help, at risk.

“Just last Thursday, March 25, a participant of an authorized syringe service program in Baltimore City was arrested and jailed for attempting to bring items considered paraphernalia to a loved one in another county who needed these life-saving supplies,” BHRC writes. “This SSP participant was, and continues to be, punished for trying to help someone achieve greater safety and serve public health goals. Regardless of whether or not the charges are dropped, this person has had their life turned upside down, spent multiple days risking exposure to COVID and not been able to attend to their loved ones.” 

But there are amendments to the bill. Namely, the Senate Bill passed with amendments that would still let police arrest people who have paraphernalia if the police decide the paraphernalia was used for “delivery, distribution, or sale.”

“We need to decriminalize possession of paraphernalia under any circumstance right now. If distribution, delivery, and sales of paraphernalia are not protected, our state’s public health is under threat,” BHRC writes. “If the Senate Judicial Proceedings (JPR) Committee does not agree to the House version, members of JPR and the House Judiciary Committee will need to decide on a version of the bill in conference committee. This would further delay the process and clog the urgent agenda of these busy committees.”


2016 Baltimore Police Beating of 56-Year-Old Settled for $45,000

This week, Baltimore City’s Board of Estimates awarded a $45,000 settlement to 56-year-old Theresa Rouse, who confronted police officers back in 2016 after they detained her 13-year-old grandson for allegedly smoking cannabis. Rouse approached the police, and Officer Chris Florio ordered her to “get back” and to put out her cigarette. Rouse instead flicked the cigarette at Florio, who threw Rouse to the ground, put his knee on her back, and put her in handcuffs. The incident was recorded with a cell phone by an onlooker. Next, Rouse was carried by her hands and legs and eventually put on the curb when officers could not get her in the police car. She was charged with, among other things, second-degree assault and possession of a dangerous weapon (the dangerous weapon? Her cigarette).

Baltimore Brew’s “A flicked cigarette and a knee to the neck” covers the incident and settlement in depth and also notes that “the BOE was told that Officer Florio was cleared by BPD’s Internal Affairs Division of any mishandling of the Rouse arrest. Neither he nor other police at the scene—identified in court records as Officers Anthony Ward, John Romeo, John Rosenblatt and Sergeants Michael Brinn and Billy Shiflett—faced disciplinary action.”

Earlier this year, ACLU MD released “Chasing Justice,” a report which revealed the Baltimore Police officers with the most allegations against them. 


ELSEWHERE

“Harm Reduction During the Pandemic,” WYPR’S On The Record

“The story of a Baltimore assistant state’s attorney who says she was hung out to dry,” Baltimore Brew

“Worker-Owned Businesses Are Having a Moment,” Bloomberg Businessweek

“2021 Baker Artist Awardees Announced,” BmoreArt.

Lisa Snowden-McCray

Former Managing Editor and Baltimore Editor

Lisa Snowden-McCray has been working in news for over 15 years. She specializes in reporting on race, policing, and Baltimore City. She is also the editor of Baltimore Beat, a nonprofit news outlet in Baltimore City.

 
@lisamccray