With COVID-19 cases on the rise in Talbot County, the county’s health officer is warning local restaurants refusing to comply with state and county directives that their food service licenses are on the line.
In a July 14 letter and in a Wednesday afternoon press conference, Gov. Larry Hogan urged local officials to take action against non-compliant businesses.
The letter specifically noted reckless behavior at some of the state’s bars and restaurants and expressed concern that cases in the 20- to 40-year-old age group are rising even as Maryland’s COVID-19 metrics have stabilized.
“This tends to be the age of people who have to go to work every day,” Talbot County Health Officer Dr. Fredia Wadley said Wednesday in a statement. “They are often on the front lines, working in positions where they come into contact with the public, and they are more likely to be out socializing after hours and on weekends.”
Wadley met Tuesday with the Talbot County Council, which was sitting as the county’s Board of Health.
She asked elected officials to consider a local mandate to limit the size of gatherings, to require facial coverings for people inside public and retail facilities, and to impose civil penalties on those cited for violations.
Wadley told the board that at least one restaurant has been warned four times about violating the state restrictions.
“We have to recognize that we only have social distancing, facial coverings and hand hygiene to help prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Wadley said in the statement. “And to ignore these proven practices while this pandemic burns through our country with higher rates every day would be a sign of negligence on the part of any health officer.”
The council voted to have the county attorney draft emergency legislation to provide civil penalties against businesses that fail to comply with COVID-19 orders. That legislation is expected to be considered at the council’s July 28 meeting.
“We are not trying to hurt the business community, but we’re trying to keep people safe,” Council President Corey Pack said in the statement. “Many businesses are operating appropriately, and we want to continue to encourage and work with them. Unfortunately, there are some businesses that are not doing all they can, and we are going to have to address those businesses.”
Education has been the Talbot County Health Department’s first line of defense, according to the Wednesday statement. But as the summer heats up and people become weary of the measures used to curtail the spread of the virus, officials are beginning to consider more stringent measures.
The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has increased dramatically since the Independence Day holiday. For several days last week, Talbot County led the state with a positivity rate over 8%, a number that indicates the percentage of the total number of people who were tested and found to be positive for the COVID-19 virus.
Wadley, in the Wednesday statement, noted she has the authority to suspend food licenses of any business with conditions deemed an immediate health threat.
She said restaurants not complying with the governor’s executive order will get a compliance letter warning of a food license suspension.
The order says no one can be served at a bar, patrons must be seated to receive service, and six-foot distancing is required.
Restaurants that continue to violate the order would then have the license suspended.
“We have worked with a number of restaurant owners who are trying to do the right thing,” Wadley said in the statement. “But we still see people standing shoulder to shoulder in bar areas, tables packed with customers, and people refusing, or simply forgetting, to wear masks.”
Wadley and a team of interagency partners have come together to examine the problem and consider what tools they currently have to address ongoing problems.
The Maryland Code authorizes the local health officers, with authority delegated by the Secretary of Health, to suspend the food license of a facility that has conditions that offer an immediate health threat.
The Maryland Department of Health has encouraged local health officers to have their restaurant inspectors use a COVID-19 checklist on their routine inspections and when they investigate restaurant complaints.
Restaurants that are not in compliance with the Governor’s Executive Order concerning restaurants and bars will receive a compliance letter notifying them that if they do not come into compliance that their food license will be suspended.
The COVID-19 checklist provided by the state will be placed on the Talbot County Health Department website as well as the Talbot COVID 19 website.
Public events that require a temporary license agreement must also be approved by the county health officer.
While outdoor events are 18 times safer than those held indoors, Wadley said, allowing large crowds to gather where social distancing is impossible or unlikely will contribute to the spread of the virus.
The third option for action is that when complaints are received by the county liquor board and the liquor board inspector finds that bars are not following the governor’s executive order, the liquor board could consider suspending the facility’s liquor license.
Emergency Services Director Clay Stamp agrees that it is time to take action.
“Your Emergency Operations Center opened in response to this virus in March, and we have seen amazing things from this community in the face of this public health emergency,” he said in the statement. “But we also recognize that there is an economic component to this problem, and we needed to get our businesses open.
“We want our businesses to be successful. We need them to be successful,” Stamp said. “No one is interested in shutting businesses down, but the fact is we have some businesses that are not in compliance. We need to step forward in a unified way and make some adjustments to maintain a balance between public safety and economic stability.”
For more information about Talbot County’s COVID-19 response, visit talbotcovid19.org.