At Tuesday’s Charles County commissioners meeting, the board adopted the newest restrictions placed on state businesses by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) amid the coronavirus pandemic, after previously entertaining the possibility of increasing restrictions in the county.
The decision was a follow up to the Nov. 11 meeting, where Dr. Dianna Abney, county health officer, recommended enforcing no more than 25 people at indoor gatherings and less than 100 at outdoor gatherings. Hogan’s Tuesday announcement pushed restaurants, religious services and retail stores back to 50% capacity.
In addition, dine-in service at bars and restaurants must close at 10 p.m. and cannot reopen until 6 a.m. Hospital visitation is prohibited with few exceptions such as comfort care patients and juveniles, plus nursing home visitors must display a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of visitation.
Commissioners also met with local law enforcement to discuss how to properly handle and enforce Hogan’s new executive orders. Wes Adams, county attorney, said there were previous troubles with Abney’s suggestions with conflicting guidance and legal opinion offering a number below 50% capacity.
“My suggestion is that if commissioners want to impose additional restrictions, they need to go piece by piece and discuss every single entity,” Adams said. “Accept the notion you need to caveat each proposal where the cap will be placed.”
Brian Eley, chief of staff of the Charles County Sheriff’s Office, said that the agency had responded to 467 calls as of Nov. 13 for reported violations of Hogan’s emergency orders. Eley said officers will respond to a business or residence and make sure citizens are educated and aware of the public safety requirements.
“If their compliance is not given, then it is our decision to charge someone,” Eley said. “If individuals entering a business do not comply, the owners of the business can ask them to leave. If they do not leave, they are facing a criminal trespassing offense.”
Eley said most citizens have either complied with the orders or left the business upon law enforcement response. He said there has not been much resistance to Hogan’s orders and the sheriff’s office can work with the county health department on educating and enforcing the orders.
“If [the health department] anticipates they need us, I can assure them that we will be there,” he said.
Tony Covington, state’s attorney for Charles County, said that only a handful of violations have been charged criminally since the pandemic began. Covington said under current guidelines, unless there is clear criminal activity present, many violations are unable to be prosecuted.
“I told everyone that we are going to prosecute those who do not want to follow laws,” Covington said. “The problem is some of these suggestions do not meet the muster for criminal prosecution and the governor knows that.”
La Plata Police Chief Carl Schinner said the way the advisory is written, gatherings of more than 25 people and travel across state lines is strongly discouraged, not prohibited.
“I think we can educate, but I don’t see much enforcement,” Schinner said. “When I saw this, I thought we were going to be very challenged.”
Law enforcement officials collectively agreed that the public needed to be further notified online and through other platforms that virus numbers are trending in the wrong direction. Abney said while virus numbers may rise with the coming holiday season, the commissioners should look to table a discussion on imposing further restrictions until after the beginning of 2021.