EASTON — As the coronavirus continues to spread across Talbot County, local health authorities have threatened to take away the food service and liquor licenses of restaurants and bars that repeatedly disobey health safety mandates.
Officials’ stern and most recent warning toward food and drink establishments — which was issued in a Wednesday, July 22, press release — came in response to a July 14 letter from Gov. Larry Hogan in which he urged county leaders to take “aggressive” action against defiant businesses in order to stem new infections.
Hogan wrote in the letter that a “growing number of COVID-19 cases have been connected to non-compliance with public health requirements, particularly in bars and restaurants.”
The governor highlighted the following directives from his June 10 executive order addressing safe operating procedures for such businesses:
- Bars and restaurants are open for seated service only with physical distance and capacity restrictions.
- All staff must wear a face covering while working and interacting with customers.
- For facilities with booths, every other booth must be closed.
- No more than six people at a table.
Hogan said while many establishments are in compliance with the safety guidelines, some are “flagrantly ... endangering public health.” County leaders, he said, “have a responsibility to enforce these laws.”
Wadley, in a nod to the governor’s letter during a Tuesday, July 21, Talbot County Council meeting, said she’s visited some businesses in the county “four and five times” to reiterate health safety rules.
She said she interpreted Hogan’s recent comments as his telling county leaders, “You ain’t done your job.”
“I could argue with him on that, but it wouldn’t get us anywhere,” Wadley said.
The health officer said there are a few establishments in Talbot County that are “in your face, ‘I’m not going to do anything’” to comply with health safety protocols. She told the council they’d “be surprised” by how many times she gets complaints from residents about the “same places.”
While Wadley said doesn’t want to shut any restaurants down, or take away or suspend their licenses, she said doesn’t “have a lot of sympathy” for businesses that have “made no effort to put up signage and don’t even have their employees wearing masks.”
”I’m more concerned about the establishments that aren’t taking any effort and don’t intend to take any effort,” she said. “We have worked with a number of restaurant owners who are trying to do the right thing, but we still see people standing shoulder to shoulder in bar areas, tables packed with customers, and people refusing, or simply forgetting, to wear masks.”
In order to enforce more effectively the pandemic-fueled regulations, the Talbot County Health Department will be employing its health inspectors and the county liquor board to check in on establishments and investigate complaints, according to a recent press release.
Businesses that fall out of line with the directives, the release states, will receive a letter warning them that their licenses are at risk of suspension.
In defense of her department’s ramping up enforcement efforts, Wadley said to ignore businesses’ non-compliance with health safety protocols would be a “sign of negligence on the part of any health officer” — especially “while this pandemic burns through our country with higher rates every day.”
Council President Corey Pack weighed in on the county’s need for enhanced control over businesses during the public health crisis. He said, “We are not trying to hurt the business community, but we’re trying to keep people safe.”
”Many businesses are operating appropriately, and we want to continue to encourage and work with them,” Pack said. “Unfortunately, there are some businesses that are not doing all they can, and we are going to have to address those businesses.”
County Emergency Services Director Clay Stamp asserted in a statement that “no one is interested in shutting businesses down, but the fact is we have some businesses that are not in compliance.”
”We need to step forward in a unified way and make some adjustments to maintain a balance between public safety and economic stability,” Stamp said.
As of Thursday, July 23, Talbot County saw a 9-case increase from Wednesday to 274 confirmed infections, according to state health data. The town of Easton, which is the site of the majority of Talbot’s confirmed cases, added eight infections for a total of 222 to date. Trappe and St. Michaels have recorded 12 and 19 cases, respectively.
The locations of the remaining cases were not disclosed because the state zip code data exclude cases in zip codes with fewer than seven cases.