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Talbot leaders weigh limited gatherings, mask mandates

EASTON — The Talbot County Council, in response to the county’s ongoing surge in coronavirus infections, will draft an executive order that could subject citizens to fines if they fail to wear a face covering in public or refrain from gathering in large groups.

The push to more firmly outline and enforce the health safety measures came at the suggestion of County Health Officer Dr. Fredia Wadley, who told the council during a Tuesday, July 21, meeting, she doesn’t think the county’s existing enforcement tools are sufficient to slow the virus’s spread.

For several consecutive days, Talbot County recorded the state’s highest positivity rate and has seen a higher daily average of new cases than it has reported in the pandemic’s entirety. As of Wednesday, July 22, the county tallied 268 confirmed cases and four deaths, according to state health data.

A majority of the county’s reported cases have occurred among Easton residents, state zip code data show. Hospitalizations related to the virus in Talbot County, Wadley said Tuesday, have fluctuated from “low single digits” to “low double digits,” and now they’re “back down to high single digits.”

The council’s executive order of virus-thwarting actions is in the process of being drafted and is expected to be introduced at next week’s council meeting on Tuesday, July 28. The order’s specifics, such as acceptable indoor versus outdoor group sizes, scenarios in which masks will be required and the amount violators of the order might be fined, have yet to be determined.

Council Member Pete Lesher, after making the motion Tuesday for the council to direct county staff to draft the order, said while there’s no “magic number” for safe gathering sizes, he believes the county “needs to set something.”

“Whether that (limit) is 15 and 50 for indoor and outdoor, I’m open to advice on that. That can be adjusted,” Lesher said. “We can start drafting this legislation while we are finalizing those numbers. We can debate the enforceability and applicability of it.”

Ahead of Lesher’s comments, Wadley had told the council “there is not a number that says, ‘Transmission will not happen if you keep it to this number.’”

“The only thing is, the lower you keep it, the less risk you have, but there’s no magic number,” she said, adding, “You don’t want 8,000 people from several states coming into Talbot County at this time of the pandemic, and that’s what can happen if you don’t really take some measures to limit gatherings.”

The health officer also said being outside is a “whole lot better” than being inside, though she acknowledged, “that doesn’t mean the risk goes away.”

“Is 10 (people) safe? Not if I’m in the room with 10 others who have the virus. As you go up, you know the risk goes up,” Wadley said. “If you have the same number and the same condition of groups and you put them inside, their risk for getting COVID-19 goes up — if there’s somebody infected in there — by 18 times.”

While the council seemed to be in unanimous agreement that preventative action needed to be taken to lower the county’s infection rate, some of the council members on Tuesday voiced distaste for the executive order’s potentially allowing for a fine imposition on citizens and businesses.

Council Vice President Chuck Callahan said he thought the financial punishment was “going a little far” and called it “a step too much.”

“I feel like these businesses just opened up in the last six weeks to eight weeks and got themselves somewhat back on track,” Callahan said. “To walk into a business and basically give them a fine, I’m just not there. I’m sorry. I’m just not quite there.”

Wadley said she could “understand that,” but added, “To me, issuing a criminal citation is far worse than a civil.” That’s why Gov. Larry Hogan’s previous executive order, which threatened a hefty fine and jail time, has not been enforced locally, she said.

Enforcing the pending local order, the council suggested, should be at the hands of restaurant health inspectors and local law enforcement officers, who can monitoring businesses’ and the public’s compliance with masking and limited gatherings.

Council Member Laura Price said uniformed officers should be proactively stationed near bars, restaurants and other businesses in order to take the enforcement pressure off of business owners and their employees — many of whom across the country have clashed with customers following attempts to enforce masking and distancing rules.

“To ask an employee to be the enforcer, someone might say, ‘I’m not listening to you. I’m going to do what I want.’ We’ve seen examples, even outside of a Walmart or a Target, where there’s violence,” Price said. “I think (stationing officers) is the safest and most direct way to deal with the bars and restaurants right now.”

Additional funding to cover the labor costs associated with enforcers of the order, the council said, could come from Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act or Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds. Emergency Services Director Clay Stamp, who also was at Tuesday’s meeting, confirmed that such enforcement measures are eligible for reimbursement.

But Price cautioned the council against being “more strict” than the governor in its mandates, saying “We need to reinforce the governor’s orders, restate them. We don’t need to be stricter than that.”

Council President Corey Pack spoke in favor of establishing penalties and guidelines in an executive order. He said the problem in Talbot County has “come to a point where we’re leading the state in our positivity rate” and the “numbers have increased dramatically.”

”If you notice that red light flashing in front of you and those bells going off, that lets you know you’re headed to something really, really bad,” he said. “I think we need to take some affirmative action regarding a number of issues brought to our attention.”

Expanding the welcome

EASTON — Adding two words — gender identity — to Talbot County Public Schools’ nondiscrimination policy took some time during the Board of Education’s livestreamed, virtual July 15 meeting, but the revision will move to second reader at the board’s August meeting.

The task of revising Nondiscrimination Policy 1.2 came “in response to United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights’ promulgation of new regulations relating to Title 9 of the education amendments of 1972,” said Lynne Duncan, assistant superintendent for administrative and support services.

The policy was first adopted in 1993, reviewed in 2010 and revised in 2012.

If adopted after three readings and a public hearing, the main text of the policy would be, “The Talbot County Board of Education is committed to promoting the worth and dignity of all individuals. The Board will not tolerate or condone any act of bias, discrimination, insensitivity, or disrespect toward any person on the basis of race, color, sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, national origin, religion, socio-economic status or disabling condition.”

Board Member Emily Jackson suggested the additional phrase. “We are missing in this policy protection for gender identity,” she said.

School board president Juanita Hopkins asked board attorney Andrew Scott of Pessin Katz Law to weigh in with his expertise, and “to go through that whole litany for us” of how “gender identity is included in the meaning of the word sex.”

“The Supreme Court ruled last month in a series of three consolidated cases that the word ‘sex’ as it’s used in Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 includes the phrase gender identity,” Scott said. “And Title 7 is the federal law that prohibits, among other things, discrimination on the basis of sex ... as it applies to employees.” The word ‘sex’ in Title 9 will also be interpreted similarly, though it’s still not entirely decided.”

“It’s highly likely that the Supreme Court will rule the same way as Title 9, and there is a case pending at the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., which has jurisdiction over Maryland as well as a number of other states along the mid-Atlantic,” Scott said. “It’s my professional opinion that the Court will rule that the word ‘sex’ in Title 9 does include gender identity.”

Hopkins asked if anyone had a response to Jackson’s proposal.

“I feel like our policy is the statement of how we feel and the statement of what we want people to know what we stand for, so whether sex or gender identity means the same thing or not, I would feel better if we did spell it out, and say that we do not discriminate against sex, gender or gender identity,” Board Member Mary Wheeler said.

Scott clarified that “the word gender did not appear in Title 7 or 9.

“Technically, I don’t think it’s necessary to have it in this policy, but since it’s already in there, I don’t necessarily think it needs to come out,” he said. “Most laypeople and a lot of judges, for that matter, use the word sex and gender interchangeably. It’s really just a matter of being more comprehensive or not.”

Jackson spoke in favor of more comprehensive language. “I agree with that. Sex, gender, gender identification and sexual orientation are all different things even if ... a layperson who is not educated may not understand that. At the worst we’re being redundant, and at best we’re providing more protections to more students, and I would err on the side of the best.”

“I believe that, as a board, we are not reactionary, but proactive,” Jackson said. “We are a policy-making, forward-thinking board, and so I think that this is a thoughtful, well-thought-out, well-intended change that we’re making based on sound legal advice.”

Board Member April Motovidlak agreed. She wanted to “leave the word gender in place and add the phrase gender identity.’”

Board Member Susan Delean-Botkin said she agreed with Jackson and Motovidlak. “I think we should pay attention to what happens in the 4th Circuit well, in case we need to upgrade and make changes in compliance with the law.”

“I sort of agree with all you ladies, but like I said, it depends on the Supreme Court and what they say, but I would like for it to be spelled out where we actually come from, because we do not discriminate at all,” said Board Member Otis Sampson.

“Thank you for that, and I’m of the same mindset,” Hopkins said. “It looks like we have a consensus to add ‘gender identity.’”

The board moved the policy revision to second reader, to be added to the agenda for the board’s August 12 meeting.

House votes on statues of Confederates, racist chief justice

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House moved toward a vote Wednesday on removing from the U.S. Capitol statues of Confederate heroes, including Robert E. Lee, and a bust of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the author of the 1857 Dred Scott decision that declared African Americans couldn’t be citizens.

Besides Taney, the bill would direct the Architect of the Capitol to identify and eventually remove from Statuary Hall at least 10 statues honoring Confederate leaders, including Lee, Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens. Three statues honoring white supremacists — including former U.S. Vice President John C. Calhoun of South Carolina — would be immediately removed.

“Defenders and purveyors of sedition, slavery, segregation and white supremacy have no place in this temple of liberty,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said at a Capitol news conference ahead of the House vote.

Hoyer, D-Md., co-sponsored the bill and noted with irony that Taney was born in the southern Maryland district Hoyer represents. Hoyer said it was appropriate that the bill would replace Taney’s bust with another Maryland native, the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the high court’s first Black justice.

The House vote comes as communities nationwide reexamine the people they’re memorializing with statues. Bills to remove the Taney bust and the statues of Confederate leaders have been introduced in the Republican-controlled Senate, where prospects for passage are uncertain.

Even if legislation passes both chambers, it would need the president’s signature, and President Donald Trump has opposed the removal of historic statues elsewhere. Trump has strongly condemned those who toppled statues during protests over racial injustice and police brutality following the May death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The 2-foot-high marble bust of Taney is outside a room in the Capitol where the Supreme Court met for half a century, from 1810 to 1860. It was in that room that Taney, the nation’s fifth chief justice, announced the Dred Scott decision, sometimes called the worst decision in the court’s history.

“What Dred Scott said was, Black lives did not matter,’’ Hoyer said. “So when we assert that yes they do matter, it is out of conviction ... that in America, the land of the free includes all of us.’’

There’s at least one potentially surprising voice for Taney to stay. Lynne M. Jackson, Scott’s great-great-granddaughter, says if it were up to her, she’d leave Taney’s bust where it is. But she said she’d add something too: a bust of Dred Scott.

“I’m not really a fan of wiping things out,” Jackson said in a telephone interview this week from her home in Missouri.

The president and founder of The Dred Scott Heritage Foundation, Jackson has seen other Taney sculptures removed in recent years, particularly in Maryland, where he was the state’s attorney general before becoming U.S. attorney general and then chief justice.

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said the statues honoring Lee and other Confederate leaders are “deliberate attempts to rewrite history and dehumanize African Americans.’’

The statues “are not symbols of Southern heritage, as some claim, but are symbols of white supremacy and defiance of federal authority,’’ Lee said. “It’s past time we end the glorification of men who committed treason against the United States in a concerted effort to keep African Americans in chains.’’

Calhoun, who served as vice president from 1825-1832, also was a U.S. senator, House member and secretary of state and war. He died a decade before the Civil War, but was known as a strong defender of slavery, segregation and white supremacy.

His statue would be removed within 30 days of the bill’s passage, along with former North Carolina Gov. Charles Aycock and James Clarke, a former Arkansas governor and senator.

In the summer of 2017, shortly after white nationalists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue of Lee, Baltimore’s mayor removed statues of Lee, Taney and others.A statue of Taney was removed from the grounds of the State House in Annapolis around the same time. And a bust of Taney was removed that year from outside city hall in Frederick, Maryland.

Another Taney bust sits alongside all other former chief justices in the Supreme Court’s Great Hall, a soaring, marble-columned corridor that leads to the courtroom. A portrait of Taney hangs in one of the court’s conference rooms.

Jackson said she believes that what memorials honoring figures like Taney need is context. At the Capitol, the Taney statue sits in the “place where the Dred Scott case was decided,” but the fact he is “there by himself is lopsided,” Jackson said in suggesting a bust of Scott be added. She had proposed a similar fix for the Taney statue in Annapolis.

In Congress, Taney’s bust was controversial from the start. When Illinois Sen. Lyman Trumbull proposed its creation in 1865, shortly after Taney’s death, he got into a heated debate with Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner, a fierce opponent of slavery.

“Let me tell that senator that the name of Taney is to be hooted down the page of history. Judgment is beginning now,” Sumner said. “And an emancipated country will fasten upon him the stigma which he deserves.”

Funding for a Taney bust wasn’t approved until almost a decade later. Today, near the Taney bust, inside the old Supreme Court chamber, there are also busts of the nation’s first four chief justices. The first, John Marshall, is the only person to serve as chief justice longer than Taney and a revered figure in the law.

But John Marshall too was a deeply flawed man, as were other justices, said Paul Finkelman, the president of Gratz College in Pennsylvania and the author of “Supreme Injustice: Slavery in the Nation’s Highest Court.” Marshall bought slaves most of his life, a fact his biographers largely ignored, and was hostile to the idea of Blacks gaining their freedom, Finkelman said. Before the Civil War, probably the majority of justices owned slaves, he said.

“It’s not pretty. It’s who they were,” Finkelman said.

Local districts take lead in MD schools' reopening

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Dr. Karen Salmon said Wednesday, July 22, all 24 school systems will have flexibility in deciding, with their local health departments, whether their students return to school virtually or in person this fall.

Salmon said nine of Maryland’s school districts have already decided to go virtual for the upcoming school year. She named Baltimore City, and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Charles, Howard, Harford, Montgomery, Washington and Prince George’s counties as being among those that have rejected the possibility of in-person instruction.

A lot of those systems, Salmon said, “are in the metro area, where we do see the higher number of cases.” The remaining jurisdictions, which include all Eastern Shore systems, are “still in the process of making decisions” and have until Aug. 14 to finalize and submit their plans to the State Department of Education for review, she said.

“We all struggle with decisions about what’s the right timing for things,” Salmon said of her stance on school re-openings. “My hope is, wouldn’t it be great if we had a vaccine and the situation changes? And maybe, because we were so apt at going out (into virtual learning) pretty quickly, maybe we can get our kids back.”

Salmon said she’s “always hopeful about many things” and she’s “hopeful we can get back to school during the school year.”

“We’ve always been working toward the goal of safely reopening,” she said.

While Salmon is leaving decision-making up to individual school systems, those that choose to resume in-person instruction will have to play by the rules, she said — which are outlined as “guardrails,” and include the wearing of face coverings by all students and staff.

The Maryland Department of Health and the Maryland State Department of Education will require adherence to the following guidelines concerning the wearing of face coverings among students and staff during a school day:

  • School staff must wear cloth face coverings while in the school building, on school grounds when not contraindicated due to a medical condition, intellectual or developmental disabilities, or other conditions or safety concerns;
  • All students, school staff and bus drivers must wear a cloth face covering while on a school bus when not contraindicated due to a medical condition or developmental or safety considerations;
  • Other adults must wear cloth face coverings when they must enter the school building or grounds for essential functions;
  • Students, especially students in middle and high school, must wear cloth face coverings in the school building and on school grounds as much as possible when not contraindicated due to a medical condition or developmental or safety considerations;
  • The use of cloth face coverings is most important at times when physical distancing measures cannot be effectively implemented especially when indoors;
  • Local education agencies should examine the structure and schedule of the education program to identify when physical distancing may be a challenge;
  • Cloth face coverings should not be worn by children under two years old and anyone who has trouble breathing or is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove a face covering without assistance.

Before school systems can make the leap to reopen, though, they must meet a series of benchmarks ahead of their reopening, Salmon said.

Those benchmarks include identifying learning gaps and instructional placement of students, maintaining certain educational standards, adopting and following cleaning and sanitation procedures, ensuring safe transportation for students, developing a system for tracking attendance and following state guidelines for athletics and activities.

School systems also will be required to follow state health protocols for responding to any confirmed COVID-19 infections among students and staff.

Among those protocols are establishing a process for parents to notify the school when they detect their child has the virus, establishing a timeline for retrieving ill students or staff from school grounds, and outlining contact tracing procedures in coordination with the local health department.

According to an MDH document detailing the anticipated protocols, schools also will be responsible for providing written notification and next steps suggestions to all of a positive student’s or staff member’s suspected contacts. Reactionary steps in the face of a confirmed coronavirus infection could result in a student —and his or her close contacts — having to temporarily return to distance learning, the document states.

If a person develops COVID-19 symptoms during a school day, the school is expected to “isolate the person in a designated isolation area” and the person should be vacated from the school premises “as soon as possible.”

Local health departments, the MDH document states, have the authority to reissue a school closure if an outbreak occurs.

Despite looming uncertainty surrounding the 15 school systems’ reopening plans that remain unannounced and undecided, Salmon voiced an optimistic view of students’ potential to return to school buildings, either full time or in a hybrid capacity, within the approaching school year.

She said she wants to “get our students back to school as soon as possible for in-person instruction and this should be the driving goal and the basis for all of our decisions.”

“What happens in school buildings is an essential part of our children’s development on so many levels: academic, social, emotional and nutritional. These can never be fully replaced by a virtual environment,” Salmon said, though she acknowledged, “the imminent safety and health of students and staff must always be the first priority.”