Charles County weighs stronger COVID-19 response as cases rise

With the current rise in COVID-19 cases throughout the D.C. region, and across the U.S., local governments are looking for ways to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Last week, in Charles County, Maryland, where infection rates were higher than the state’s average, Health Officer Dr. Dianna Abney suggested imposing public health restrictions that were tougher than those in effect statewide at the time, such as the recommendation to limit indoor gatherings to no more than 25 people.

On Tuesday afternoon, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced more pandemic-related restrictions, including a curfew for restaurants and bars, and lowered capacity for retail businesses, religious facilities, barbershops and salons.

But earlier Tuesday, the Board of Charles County Commissioners examined whether they could or should go farther than state health restrictions.

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One possibility raised was having the county publicize on social media, and elsewhere, businesses that failed to insist customers wear face masks and observe social distancing guidelines.

The shaming strategy wouldn’t be fair, said Brian Eley, chief of staff of the Charles County Sheriff’s Office. Despite a number of calls for service to deal with mask violations, the offender is a single customer in most cases.

“Businesses are doing exactly what we’ve asked them to do,” Eley said. “They ask individuals to comply, and if not, pick up the phone and call us.”

Abney said on Tuesday that many of the recent COVID-19 cases have been spread through large family gatherings. With Thanksgiving approaching, the panel was asked if it would be helpful to do enforcement when neighbors witness big gatherings in private homes.

LaPlata police Chief Carl Schinner said the local and state health health guidance wouldn’t support legal enforcement.

“It does not say you cannot have more than 25 people,” said Schinner, reading: “You are strongly discouraged from indoor gatherings of 25 people or more.”

Even if neighbors reported a party next door, Schinner said, “I think we can knock on the door. I think we can educate, but that’s where it ends. I can’t see any enforcement.”

Charles County Commonwealth’s Attorney Tony Covington agreed: “Unless it’s in strictly black and white plain language, ‘prohibited,’ nobody could be prosecuted.”

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