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Baltimore County government catches COVID politics

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski. Credit: John Lee

For months during the pandemic, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski, a Democrat, could count on bipartisan support on the county council for extending his authority under a state of emergency, to deal with COVID-19.

But that bipartisanship crumbled during a debate Monday over whether to extend the state of emergency.

Monday’s vote, as well as a previous vote in August to extend the state of emergency, each for 30 days, were along party lines. The three Republicans on the seven-member body opposed it. The state of emergency gives Olszewski broad powers to reinstate certain COVID-related restrictions if he deemed them necessary.

Olszewski said it’s a shame COVID has become political on the county council.

“I just want to applaud those council members who continue to put science first and the health and safety of our residents first,” Olszewski said after the vote. “Our numbers have been better than many other places because this hasn’t been a political issue.”

“And they say COVID’s not political,” said Democrat Cathy Bevins following Monday night’s divided vote.

But Republican Councilman David Marks takes issue with that.

“Now it seems like some Democrats are just saying we’re political simply because we won’t go along with them.”

Marks said he has a history of working with Democrats and that his past votes for the state of emergency came at considerable political risk.

He says he voted no because the COVID numbers, like transmission rates, have fallen. The county’s positivity rate is at 3.75%.

“Certainly, the Republicans are not the ones out there claiming politics,” Marks said. “Republicans have laid out very good arguments for why our current strategy’s working and we don’t need to have a state of emergency.”

Republican Councilman Todd Crandell said in a statement the state of emergency is not a partisan issue for him either.

John Dedie, a political science professor at the Community College of Baltimore County, said there are politics on both sides, and what’s happening in Baltimore County now is a microcosm of what’s playing out in localities across the country. Republicans are more likely to want to back off from restrictive measures. Democrats are more cautious.

“They’re taking an attitude of better to err on the side of caution rather than throw all caution to the wind because if something goes wrong, they have to own it,” Dedie said.

A recent Pew Research Center poll lays out what political leaders are hearing from their constituents. 80% of Democrats surveyed see the COVID outbreak as a major threat to health. Among Republicans, it’s fewer than 40%.

During a county council public hearing, several speakers, including Katie Kimball, said they didn’t want any more shutdowns or restrictions.

“We see the state of emergency as a money grab for federal funding and a power grab so Johnny [Olszewski] can mandate what he pleases without due process in the legislature,” she said.

Under the county charter, the county executive can issue executive orders to protect the health, safety and welfare of county residents. That broad language makes some nervous about what might be to come. But Baltimore County Attorney James Benjamin said the state of emergency cannot be a power grab.

“Constitutional rights have to be considered as well to make sure there’s not an infringement on a person’s rights.”

Benjamin said the declaration is being used so the county can spend money more quickly on COVID.

“The state of emergency allows for procurement measures to be heard and addressed and resolved in a much quicker fashion,” Benjamin said.

Last month, Olszewski also used an executive order to help restaurants and bars continue to offer outdoor dining.

Meanwhile, Republican Councilman Marks is calling for a “cooling off of rhetoric on all sides” surrounding the state of emergency. That likely will be put to the test in about a month when the current state of emergency runs out.

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