Hogan gives counties power to shut down unsafe business

Big box stores like this Walmart in Denton are taking measures to restrict spacing between customers, such as this cordoned-off area to monitor and limit the number of customers entering the store.

ANNAPOLIS — In his latest move to combat the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Larry Hogan granted Maryland’s county health officers the power to shut down essential businesses that fail to align with state directives. In Talbot County, a few shops are already under threat of penalization, said Dr. Fredia Wadley.

Wadley, Talbot County’s health officer, said in an interview Monday afternoon there are a few retail establishments residents have pointed to as being “a bigger problem” than others when it comes to virus-related compliance failures.

While she didn’t name the specific stores, Wadley said the “big ones” are raising concerns “because they have far more people in the store at one time.”

To send a signal the Talbot County Health Department is unafraid to use the power the governor vested in it, Wadley wrote up a notice to be distributed to all essential businesses in the county.

“While some of our retail establishments are taking measures to provide for social distancing that is essential to stop the spread of COVID-19, others are not accepting their civic responsibility to keep the public safe,” Wadley wrote in the notice.

In order to dodge discipline, Wadley wrote, businesses should mark their floors to “ensure adequate distance between customers,” limit the number of people in the store at a given time, and begin disinfecting surfaces customers touch regularly, such as carts, checkout areas and door handles.

Wadley acknowledged, though, that keeping customers safe inside retail establishments isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula, as stores vary in size, layout and products sold.

She said, while the burden ultimately falls on store management to develop and implement its own public safety plan, her department welcomes businesses to reach out for advice.

Though, whether businesses come up with their own precautions or seek help from the county health department, Wadley said, stores need to take action “immediately.”

“If we see that (a store) has been warned and still is not following guidelines, then I will issue an order to close them,” the health officer said.

When asked whether she would be more hesitant to close one store over another based on the products the shop sells, Wadley said she would “treat them equally.”

“There are some areas you could definitely consider more essential than others,” she said. “But the governor has tried to set what he considers essential and we don’t have much play with that. Once they’re on that list and they’re not trying to protect customers as they’re supposed to, then that’s the health officer’s decision.”

Wadley added that the governor “wanted everyone to realize that just because you’re on an ‘essential’ list doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take precautions.”

“It is an inconvenience, small store or big store,” Wadley said. “We want them to stay open, but to stay open they need to follow a few guidelines. We all have to have some limits if we’re going to try to slow this virus.”

Failure to obey directives by a county health officer, according to the governor’s executive order, is a criminal offense. Violators could face up to one year in jail and/or $5,000 in fines.

If Talbot businesses need guidance, they should reach out to the local health department at 443-819-5600 and ask to speak with an infection control nurse, Wadley said.

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