Video courtesy of Robyn Sprague

LA PLATA, Md. — Reopening the state of Maryland has been a heavily debated topic since Governor Larry Hogan[R] pushed the responsibility onto local jurisdictions back on May 13. 

Many Republican-controlled areas such as St. Mary’s and Calvert County have paved the way towards reopening as quickly as Hogan has allowed; whereas Democratic-held areas such as Prince George’s and Montgomery County, which represent an overwhelming majority of confirmed COVID-19 cases, have taken a slower and arguably more cautious approach.

Enter Charles County.

With likely over 921 confirmed coronavirus cases as of May 20, they rank as eighth-highest out of 24 recorded jurisdictions in Maryland.

Statistics provided by the Maryland Department of Health.

At a May 14 meeting, the Charles County Board of Commissioners heard statements from “experts” such as Dr. Howard Haft who is overseeing Charles County’s COVID-19 response, as well as the Charles Regional Medical Center President and C.E.O. Noel Cervino, who made similar recommendations towards moving forward into the governor’s first phase.

The commissioner’s voted 3-2, not to reopen at the pace of its southern neighbors, but rather to hold out until May 29, taking a similar approach to Prince George’s County. The vote has now led to multiple protests from the business community of Charles County.

“I deal with a lot of businesses, and St. Mary’s County is eating Charles County’s lunch when it comes to business,” former Maryland State Senate candidate and businessman Bill Dotson said in an interview. “All five experts said we were ready to move to phase one, and then three commissioners said that we needed to act in unity with P.G. County and remain closed until May 29… This is outrageous.”

“When they said our neighboring county, P.G., they never mentioned our two neighboring counties Calvert and St. Mary’s, who were open in phase one,” Dotson said. “It showed an alignment with P.G. County for political purposes, at the cost of all the Charles County businesses.”

Dotson has helped to organize two protests to “reopen Charles County” since the governor’s stay-at-home order was shifted to a safer-at-home order on May 15, both of which took place at the Charles County Governmental Center in La Plata.

However, after their May 15 protest was met with counter-protesters, the second protest held on May 20 was originally planned to be held on private property, to help deter a similar sequence of divisive events. Organizers changed the location from “JL Sprague Car Wash,” back to the governmental center just hours before the event, citing a need for “more space.” 

“I really wanted the protest to be at the car wash… I had my first job there as a gas station attendant,” State Delegate Matt Morgan[R-29A], one of the event’s speakers explained.

“They moved the protest, and screwed up my opening line,” Morgan said with a laugh.

The St. Mary’s County representative noted a decline in COVID hospitalizations, particularly locally, is leading to problems in the medical field. Morgan cited how hospital workers right now are being laid off during the current global pandemic, using Anne Arundel County who recently furloughed 1,000 hospital employees as one example.

“We were told that we were going to have a two-week lockdown, now we are going into week eight. We were told to flatten the curve, and we flattened it,” Morgan said. “We have 9,400 hospital beds around the state of Maryland, and we have never had more than 1,700 people in the hospital. ICU has been statistically flat since April 20…”

Statistics provided by the Maryland Department of Health.

“We are not trying to open up how it was in March,” Morgan explained. “These businesses are following the best [Center for Disease Control and Prevention] practices. Why is it not ok to go to these establishments that are practicing these guidelines, but it’s ok to go to Walmart, Target, and Lowes?”

However, as previously mentioned, counter-protesters have found disagreements with reopening Charles County any quicker.

Deron Tross, a man who some call an activist and others wish would leave the county, has supported the commissioner’s decision to stay closed longer within the group he admins known as “Charles County Matters Established 2015.”

“I don’t have an issue with small businesses opening, I think they are the backbone… Prince George’s County is opening in another two weeks, we can do that,” Tross said. “I understand a lot of people are hurting, but what you also need to understand is 65-70% of residents in Charles County, they leave the county and work for the federal government. I have tried to support local businesses every day. But I think we need a more cautious approach, and I think [the Board of County Commissioners] did the right thing.”

Tross also mentioned how he doesn’t believe the commissioners have the power to further align themselves to P.G. County and to distance themselves from the Southern Maryland region.

“The commissioners don’t have that authority to [align themselves with P.G. County], so I think that is a moot point,” Tross said. “However, if you look at the latest information, the median income in Charles County is over $90,000. That right there tells me that we already moved…” 

“The demographics of Charles County are changing,” Tross continued. “That’s not to say that if you live in the county, your vote doesn’t matter. Unfortunately, there are still some folks that are angry about the last election. It’s over with. We will have another election in two years. May the best man or woman win. I just hope that the community can heal, I hope that we can sit down and talk about the issues of this community, to move forward. It’s not about black or white, male or female.”

Protesters have said concerns over Charles County always being a step behind the state is a growing problem.

“People missed something crucial,” Dotson said. “In two to three to four weeks, Governor Hogan is [likely] going to move Maryland into phase two. What is to stop Charles County again from joining P.G., and say they aren’t going to move into phase two? And after that, what would stop Charles from moving into phase three? Are we always going to be three to four weeks behind the governor?”

“We can’t just sit back,” Dotson said.


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