ST. MICHAELS — The Commissioners of St. Michaels voted unanimously April 29 to keep an outdoor mask mandate in place, despite Gov. Larry Hogan’s lifting of the statewide pandemic restriction a day earlier.
The town’s outdoor mask mandate, which is required within six feet of another person, would apply for the next 30 days unless the commissioners decide to revise it. The town will vote again in a month to keep the mandate in place or lift it.
Commissioner Tad DuPont said St. Michaels attracts a large amount of tourists, so keeping the mask mandate in place was necessary.
“For community health concerns, resident health concerns, the number of people that walk our streets that haven’t been vaccinated, we will continue to leave our mask ordinance in place,” he said.
The move met resistance from the police department, including the police chief and one police officer that called into a special meeting before the commissioners came to a consensus.
Anthony Smith, the police chief for the town of St. Michaels, said the mask mandate “will be hard to enforce” and “challenging” for the small police department considering it contradicts the governor’s orders.
“There’s going to be some difficult roads ahead,” he said. “We’re going to have a lot on our plates besides dealing with the mask mandate.”
Government mask mandates were put in place last spring when the novel coronavirus first led to statewide and local restrictions.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its mask and social distancing guidelines on April 27. The U.S. has fully vaccinated more than 30% of its population. The new guidelines allow fully vaccinated people to gather in small groups outdoors without a mask and recommends lifting mask mandates outdoors.
In response to the new guidelines, Hogan lifted the outdoor mask mandate for Marylanders and all restrictions on outdoor dining. He kept the mandate in place for large venues outdoors and for all indoor businesses and facilities.
The commissioners came to a consensus to keep a mask mandate in place during a special meeting last night, repeatedly bringing up concerns with the amount of tourists on small sidewalks, which Commissioner Jaime Windon compared to large outdoor venues.
“The governor’s announcement nor the CDC’s proclamation this week doesn’t change the way I feel about our crowded sidewalks,” said Windon. “There’s a great argument to be made ... that the sidewalks in St. Michaels are, in fact, a crowded event on a Saturday.”
And Commissioner David Breimhurst said Talbot County is “high-risk.”
“We’ve got 50% of the population vaccinated but that means 50% is not,” he said. “To needlessly risk exposure to residents and employees of shops and restaurants, I think, would be a mistake at this point.”
Talbot County has a positivity rate for COVID-19 infections of under 5% and it has one of the smallest case counts in the state.
St. Michaels is not the first government that has declined to follow the governor’s orders. Montgomery County’s county executive also said he would not lift an outdoor mask mandate shortly after Hogan’s announcement.
St. Michaels is unique because of its high traffic in the summertime, which usually starts around May and June. President Joyce Harrod said the town is in “a booming time” already.
“The town is busy,” she said. “This is the opening of summer.”
Kristen Greenaway, the president of Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, which attracts a chunk of the tourists in town, told the commissioners she supported the mask mandate.
“This makes it, from the museum’s perspective, a great deal easier for us to be a safe, family-friendly place to go,” she said.
But Jennifer Smith, the owner of Galley Cafe, pointed out it was a contradiction to have separate rules for outdoor dining and an outdoor mask mandate on the streets and sidewalks.
She said her employees would not be wearing masks when outdoors on her property. The commissioners said they would not interfere with businesses on their property.
Smith also mentioned that customers will not have to wear a mask while dining outdoors but when transitioning to the street, they will have to put it back on.
“As someone dealing with people constantly, I’m going to hear about this,” she said.
St. Michaels already has signs up in town to make visitors and residents aware of the mask mandate. A violation is a $50 fine.
The town could have trouble enforcing the rule with the rest of the Shore following the governor’s orders, at least as of right now, but Windon argued that “it’s not a hard ask to keep masks on our sidewalks” and last summer, most tourists complied.
But Smith, the police chief, argued that it will be hard to enforce.
He said “the rules of engagement” have changed from last summer, considering the state lifted the restrictions and millions of Americans have now been vaccinated. The police chief expects only 75% of people to comply if police enforce the rule.
“Just understand that’s what we are going to have to deal with,” he said. “We will do the best we can.”