The owner of Ridge Hardware said he plans on reopening the store soon in violation of the St. Mary's County Health Department's order to close the shop on Saturday morning for COVID-19 violations, and encouraged protesters to flood the health department with phone calls and cars.
At the store on Sunday, owner Donnie Tennyson said St. Mary's health department officials shut his store down following numerous inspections, where health department employees took notice of two employees not wearing masks, along with other alleged violations such as signage requirements and floor markings.
The unmasked employees had told Tennyson they had health issues preventing them from wearing masks, he said, and he did not ask them what that issue was due to privacy concerns.
"We have been clear with the facility that a medical reason for not wearing a face covering does not mean that the employee or customer can then put the health of others at risk," Dr. Meena Brewster, the county's health officer, said through a spokesperson on Sunday, adding the employer can provide accommodations, such as having the employee work in a separate environment.
Tennyson said instead of doing that, he offered accommodations to customers who might be "uncomfortable" with his mask-less employees, offering curbside pickup.
The health department received 17 complaints about the facility in the past five months, including five in December.
After putting up a small sign saying that masks were required in August on the store's door, which still says "Enter at your own risk," health department employees said he needed to put up a larger sign "like everyone else does," Tennyson said, and marked the signage as a violation.
He claimed he was a "target" of the health department after he fought them on the issue. The health department said inspections of the store indicated the store would post the signs, then remove the signs after inspections.
Tennyson and many others gathered outside the hardware store on Sunday to protest the health department's order, which requires the store to close until the state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, or until the store submits a plan to fix its violations.
"I think I'm being treated unfairly from the big box stores," he said, referencing relaxed social distancing enforcement and "employees wearing masks below their noses" at such stores.
The store owner said he "has to decide" when he will be opening the store back up, and will have a GoPro video camera with him "in case I am arrested." The store appeared closed Monday afternoon with a sign out front directing questions to the health department's phone number.
Tennyson, after telling the crowd he "shouldn't say this," suggested a protest at the health department's office, where protesters would fill up parking spots to prevent health department employees from accessing their workplace, also photographing the health department employees.
The county's health department is the only site left for free COVID-19 testing after the department indefinitely shut down its testing site on Great Mills Road last week due to cold weather concerns.
Tennyson also suggested "inundating" the health department with phone calls reporting "petty" offenses at big box stores "so they can leave small businesses alone."
Former Republican delegate Deb Rey, who attended the Sunday protest and runs the ReOpen St. Mary's County group, told the crowd she "love[d] Donnie's idea of parking at the health department," also saying the COVID-19 "emergency is over," citing better treatment and less capacity issues at hospitals.
St. Mary's had a seven-day average of 32.3 new cases of COVID-19 added on Sunday, a drop from the previous day, but on average significantly higher than any other part of the pandemic since March.
In the past two weeks, 13 St. Mary's County residents have died of the virus, increasing numbers which do not yet match the springtime peak of deaths in May.
A total of 75 St. Mary's residents have died of the virus, and nearly 3,000 have tested positive since March.