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Olszewski Eases Business Restrictions As Council Debates "State Of Emergency"

Baltimore County

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski relaxed Thursday COVID-19 related restrictions on churches and businesses in the county.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore County Council debated what it means to be under a state of emergency and whether it should be extended.

At a morning news conference, Olszewski said retail stores can reopen starting at 9 am Friday. But no more than 10 people, including staff, can be inside the store at a time.

When Gov. Larry Hogan announced he was lifting the stay at home order last week, he said local governments would have the flexibility to make their own decisions about reopening.

Olszewski said Thursday that has created a patchwork of rules that have left Baltimore County businesses facing restrictions that don’t apply to nearby competitors across the county line.

“What’s more, we know that our residents are travelling to businesses in other counties while our establishments remain closed,” Olszewski said. “This not only puts some of our small businesses at a competitive disadvantage, it also has the unfortunate impact of limiting the public health benefits our own restrictions have.”

Barber shops and hair salons in the county can reopen, but they also have the no more than 10 people restriction in place and must operate by appointment only.

Personal services like nail salons, massage parlors, tattoo shops and tanning salons remain closed.

Olszewski said places of worship can have drive-through or drive-in services. But even in church, the constant in Baltimore County is no more than 10 people can gather either inside or outside. That is below the threshold set by the governor last week of 50 percent of a church's capacity.

Separate from Olszewski’s news conference, the Baltimore County Council voted Thursday morning to extend the county’s state of emergency for 45 more days, but not before council members debated what a state of emergency means and if the county even needs one.

Republican councilman Todd Crandell called for the state of emergency to end, saying it’s time to fully open up the churches and businesses.

“The first amendment is being restricted,” Crandell said. “And people were willing to do that when this pandemic first started.”

Crandell said pastors and store owners will act responsibly.

But several council members countered that Crandell didn’t understand the implications of ending the state of emergency, and that it is different than Olszewski’s executive orders that are putting restrictions on churches and businesses.

For instance, under the state of emergency, Olszewski can spend money quickly on COVID related supplies, rather than having to wait for the council’s approval.

Democratic Councilman Julian Jones said it also allows the county to do things like stop foreclosures and make sure people’s waters supplies aren’t turned off.

Jones said, “If you were attempting to get rid of the state of emergency just because you were dissatisfied with the orders of the county executive, it would amount to basically saying, there’s a fly in my kitchen, and I’m going to use a stick of dynamite to get rid of the fly.”

As for restrictions on worship, county attorney James Benjamin said while the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right to worship, it is not absolute.

“When you have an attempt to restrict free assembly or free worship, it must be justified by clear and present danger,” he said.

With COVID-19, Benjamin said, health officials have made it clear that is the case.

The council voted 6-1 to keep the state of emergency in place for 45 more days.

The issue of reopening businesses and churches in Baltimore County is a hot button one right now.

Republican Councilman David Marks said he’s received more than 1000 emails from people who want the county reopened.

County Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, a Democrat, says she’s received threats.

“People need to understand I’m not now or never will be intimidated into an action I think is not in the best interests of Baltimore County,” Bevins said.

Olszewski said he is able to relax restrictions a bit now because there is more COVID testing and personal protection equipment available.

“While these steps are important, we are not out of the woods yet,” Olszewski said. “I urge all residents to continue practicing social distancing to limit the spread of the virus.”

This post has been updated.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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