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.”