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The Office of GOVERNOR LARRY HOGAN

Transcript: November 23 Press Conference

GOVERNOR HOGAN:  Hello.  Good afternoon, everybody.  Joining me today are Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski, Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt, Colonel Jerry Jones the superintendent of the Maryland State Police, and Marshall Weston, the President and CEO of the Restaurant Association of Maryland.

Last week I held a productive call with all 24 of our jurisdictions and another one with our municipal leaders, and we continue to expand our outreach and communication with local officials across the state.

Earlier today, I just joined another teleconference with members of the White House coronavirus task force to discuss progress on operation warp speed and vaccine development and distribution.  We had conversations about the challenges we face as the new surge of COVID-19 continues to rise across the country.

Fortunately Maryland is still much better prepared than most states to withstand a surge, particularly when it comes to testing.  On Saturday we reported a new daily high of 51,510 tests completed.  The cornerstone of our testing strategy has been and continues to be our LabGenomics tests.  We’ve used 394,545 of the LabGenomics tests, including another 16,530 since Friday.  We have more than 230 testing sites available across the state, and our COVID-19 testing task force continues to expand operating hours and add staff at community-based sites to respond to the rapidly increasing demand.  This exponential increase in our testing capabilities shows widespread community transmission in every corner of our state.  Maryland has had 19 straight days with more than 1,000 cases of the virus, including 1,658 new cases in the last 24 hours.  There were over 142,000 new cases across the U.S. yesterday, the 20th straight day that new cases have topped the 100,000 mark.

Today Maryland’s 7-day positivity rate is 6.88%.  Our COVID hospitalizations have increased by 80% over the past 2 weeks.  As of today, 1,276 COVID patients are currently hospitalized in Maryland.  289 patients are currently in ICU, which is the highest level since June 15th.  Even with the additional 6,000 beds that we provided for in our hospital surge plan, we have hospitals in western Maryland which are already at their capacity limit, and 29 hospitals in Maryland that are at more than 90% of their capacity.  Maryland is in the red zone for the number of cases per 100,000, and our average case rate has risen to 38.3, which is nearly a 36% increase in just the last week.

U.S. hospitalizations set a record for the 13th straight day at more than 83,000, and the virus has now taken the lives of 4,293 Marylanders and over 256,000 Americans.

To address the rapidly rising cases and hospitalizations, we have taken additional new actions to keep our hospitals from overflowing and to stop more Marylanders from dying.  With contact tracing data showing a large uptick in new cases among Marylanders who have recently been exposed while dining out or shopping, capacity for bars and restaurants, retail businesses, and other establishments and facilities was rolled back to stage 2, meaning 50% capacity.  And based on reports that compliance with public health protocols drops dramatically later in the evening, all establishments statewide where food and/or alcohol is served are required to close by 10:00 p.m., with the exception of takeout and delivery of food and beverages.

Because our contact tracing data continues to show that gatherings are a big cause of the spread, a public health advisory was issued to urge no groups of 25 or more, and a travel advisory was put in place.  A survey by AAA found that nearly 90% of Marylanders are not planning to travel for the Thanksgiving holiday.  Limitations have been reinstated regarding visitation of hospitals and nursing homes.  Maryland’s statewide masking order remains in effect, which requires that wearing of masks or face coverings at any public indoor facility, including retail establishments, fitness centers, grocery stores, pharmacies, personal services establishments, in the public spaces of all public facilities and private businesses across the state, as well as when using public transportation.  Masks are also required at all outdoor public areas whenever it is not possible to maintain physical distancing.

All of these support actions are critically important to slow the spread of the virus and to fight this COVID surge.  However, these important safety measures and public health orders are only effective if they are being followed and enforced.  The vast majority of Marylanders and our small businesses in the state are doing the right thing.  And are going above and beyond to keep safe and to help us fight the virus.  But as COVID fatigue has set in, some individuals and businesses have unfortunately started to become more lax, at the very worst part of the pandemic.  Recently Anne Arundel County Police made multiple arrests at the Cold Stone Creamery in Edgewater, where customers refusing to wear a mask brutally assaulted store employees.  They will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

I know there is growing frustration that we’re still fighting this virus, and many people are struggling, emotionally and financially.  This is causing a great deal of stress for nearly everyone.  But following the public health directives is the only way that we will be able to stop this virus, to keep Maryland open for business, keep our hospitals from overflowing, which is why it is absolutely critical that they must be followed.  Businesses and individuals who blatantly violate the public health orders and refuse to follow state law are not only willfully endangering themselves, but their family, friends, and neighbors as well.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is often a night where kids come home from college, they go out to bars to drink and socialize before then celebrating the holidays, sometimes with older family members.  I cannot stress enough how reckless that behavior would be this year.  57% of all the complaints that have been registered across the state have been about compliance issues at restaurants, bars, and retail businesses.  Especially now, it is critically important that we stay vigilant in this fight.  We can’t let a few bad actors spoil it for the others who have been doing such a great job.  We cannot afford to undo all of the progress that we have made together in this war against the virus.

This morning I participated in the 17th annual Maryland Remembers ceremony, which pays tribute to those Marylanders who tragically lost their lives at the hands of a drunk or drugged driver.  As tragic as drunk driving is, far more people in Maryland have been killed by COVID-19 this year than by traffic accidents and drunk driving.  Today we are announcing that in addition to our traditional statewide efforts, ramping up drunk driving patrols and enforcement ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, we are also launching a wide-scale, all-hands-on-deck compliance, education, and enforcement operation.  The Maryland State Police is expanding its COVID-19 compliance and coordination center and deploying high visibility compliance units across the state.  Additional state troopers will be assigned in every single county to work in partnership with county leaders, county Health Departments, liquor boards, licensing to investigate any reports of violations of state law.

Beginning on Thanksgiving eve, these high visibility compliance units will be detailed to popular downtown areas, Main Street areas, in places including Bel Air, Towson, Salisbury, Silver Spring, Baltimore City, and to other spots around the state.  State troopers will support local authorities with compliance checks with a focus on educating the public about existing orders, protocols, and priorities to prevent super spreading events and to insist and enforce compliance when necessary.  State police superintendent Colonel Jerry Jones has reached out to all state and local law enforcement entities in order to mobilize and join forces in this joint operation in order to increase visibility, education, and enforcement of all existing directives, orders, and laws.

Effective immediately, MSDE will be operating a 24/7 phone line and email address to support local compliance teams in the field for any questions regarding enforcement.  The Maryland State Police is also ramping up their COVID-19 pot line where members of the public can call to report unsafe activities or violations of public health orders.  Marylanders who see unlawful behavior are encouraged to report it by calling (833)979-2266 or emailing prevent.covid@maryland.gov.

We remain committed to supporting county governments in enforcement of the orders, and I want to commend those jurisdictions that have already ramped up their enforcement efforts.  The police department has increased staffing and will be working in partnership with the Frederick County liquor board, the office of the state fire marshal, to conduct compliance checks starting on Thanksgiving eve.  And I particularly want to thank the efforts by Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski.  They formed a 30-member social distancing task force to ensure that businesses are informed of and complying with masking and distancing at capacity restrictions.  The unit has already inspected more than 5200 establishments.  This is a great example for other counties across the state, and I want to thank you, Mr. County Executive, and Chief Hyatt for joining us here this afternoon.

The heightened visibility operation that we’re launching today isn’t just about enforcement, but it’s about education on how to keep businesses safely open and to educate the public on how to stay safe and save lives.

At 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday, the Maryland Emergency Management Agency will be sending a wireless emergency alert to cell phones across the state to remind Marylanders of critical COVID-19 prevention measures and to provide information about state and local law enforcement actions.  It is only the second time that we have ever utilized this warning system during the entire time that I’ve been Governor.  We are also launching a statewide public health campaign with public service announcements that will be running on local television and radio to remind the people of Maryland that while we have been fighting this virus for what seems like forever, and even though a vaccine is on the way, we can all make a huge lifesaving difference if we do the simple things, if we keep on wearing our masks, washing our hands, and keeping our distance.  Now more than ever, we must keep doing whatever it takes to slow the spread of COVID-19.

And finally, with Thanksgiving just a few days away, I want to remind Marylanders that both federal and state officials are strongly advising against holiday travel and advising that celebrating is safer if limited to members of your immediate household.  We want all of our families across the state to enjoy the holidays, but we want them to do it in a safe way.  The way we celebrate this year may be different, but we still have so much to be thankful for.  I’m thankful for the doctors, nurses, first responders, and all of our front-line healthcare heroes who have been working around the clock, day in and day out, with little sleep to keep this virus at bay and to save lives.  I’m thankful for our scientists who are working tirelessly on vaccines and innovative therapeutics.  And most of all I’m thankful for the continued strength and resilience of the people of our great state, the thousands of Marylanders who have made sacrifices to keep each other safe, who are donating food to local food banks, checking on their neighbors, supporting their favorite local restaurants by ordering takeout and delivery, and by supporting each other during this difficult time.  Thank you for standing together in this fight and for staying Maryland Strong.

At this time I’m going to turn it over to the County Executive to discuss the social distancing task force and his increased education and enforcement efforts in Baltimore County.

JOHNNY OLSZEWSKI:  Thank you, Governor, and good afternoon.  It is indeed an honor to be here with you, Governor Hogan, superintendent Jones, and Marshall Weston from the Maryland restaurant association.  I’m also pleased to be here alongside Baltimore County’s Police Chief Melissa Hyatt who is the finest in the state of Maryland.

Governor, I thank you for the $3 million of eviction funding you announced this morning.  I’m proud that our staff in Baltimore County have put together a significant program that helps ensure our residents avoid losing their homes to eviction.  The support you’ve given us will go a long way to bolster those efforts.

I’m joining Governor Hogan here today because I want our residents to hear us loud and clear:  The situation is dire.  Baltimore County cases have skyrocketed, more than quadrupling in the last month.  The past 19 days in a row, we’ve recorded record cases every single day.  We now have more COVID hospitalizations than we had at any point during the pandemic.  Over the past month, our positivity rate has increased by more than 185%.

But Baltimore County’s problems are not unique to our jurisdiction.  We see the same trends across the state, from western Maryland to the Eastern Shore and everywhere in between.  The science tells us that we face a double whammy.  Not only are we spending more time indoors, but we’re also more likely to catch the virus there.  That means that now more than ever, the Governor is right:  We have to take this virus seriously.

I know that many of our residents have hunkered down, they’ve avoided large gatherings, they’ve worn their masks.  Those individuals, I say thank you.  Please continue staying vigilant.  Keep doing the things to keep yourself safe.  Keep your loved ones safe.  Keep perfect strangers safe.  Especially as we enter this holiday season, these brave actions are needed now more than ever.

To those residents who have been skeptical, who have ignored health and safety guidance, who don’t think this is worth taking seriously, I ask you to please hear us:  Exactly one week ago, Baltimore County and the state of Maryland lost Lisa Alvi to this terrible virus.  She’s not our latest statistic.  She was Spencer’s wife and Colin’s mother.  She was 49 years old.  She was a Virginia Tech graduate, a Vice President at Whiting-Turner, and a pillar of her community, serving as den leader for her son’s Cub Scout pack and was involved in many boards and professional organizations, including her work with the Fort Meade alliance to help military families with the fort’s resiliency center.  After fighting and beating breast cancer over the past year, she succumbed quickly to a deadly combination of pneumonia and COVID.

This weekend I had the occasion to speak with people who knew her best and who loved her most deeply.  The void she leaves behind, just like the void everyone we’ve lost leaves behind, has been immense.  

To those who have chosen not to take this virus seriously, put yourself in Spencer’s shoes and Colin’s shoes.  Would you step in and do the right thing for your loved ones if their lives were on the line?  Because their lives are on the line.

Beating this virus requires us all to do our part.  And Baltimore County has built a robust enforcement infrastructure to ensure that orders state and local are fully enforced.  To date our social distancing task force under the leadership of our director Marcus Johnson has now conducted more than 7,000 inspections over the course of this pandemic.  Some of them in response to complaints.  Others proactive.  They found more than 300 violations, and there have been 23 hearings before our liquor board to date with another 7 still scheduled.

We do spend a lot of time doing education and outreach, including this week’s partnership between the Maryland State Police and Baltimore County police.  We also cite operators who ignore the rules.  We have issued fines.  We have closed businesses that defy public health guidelines meant to keep people safe.  And we will continue doing just that.  We will continue to use the full authority granted to us by Governor Hogan’s executive orders to protect our residents.  In recent weeks we ramped up our efforts, hiring more staff and extending our hours of operation.  These rules are in place to save lives.  If you are found violating them, you will be held accountable.  We will not allow reckless behavior to continue without consequences.  This is a matter of life and death.  If too many people do not comply with the rules, we are left with no choice but to take additional actions to reduce the spread of this virus.  I understand that our small businesses are struggling, but as elected leaders, our number one priority remains the health and the lives of our residents.  We will do whatever it takes to show the transmission of this virus.

At the same time, as you heard the Governor say before, our federal partners have to step up.  The earlier stimulus was significant, and had helped save many families and small businesses in the early months of this pandemic.  But those funding streams are drying up, leaving gaping holes in the safety net our people desperately need.  Congress needs to act to support states, local governments, businesses, and communities as we continue battling this pandemic.  Without it, and without Marylanders following state and local orders, we do indeed face a long, dark winter.  One with rising case counts, hospitalizations, and deaths, along with a significant economic fallout and slow, painful recovery.  This, as the Governor has said, is an all-hands-on-deck moment.  Let’s choose to band together today.  This Thanksgiving, skip crowded airports and packed planes.  Skip the hugs.  Skip the hugs and large family gatherings now so you can have them both for years to come.  Don’t gather in large groups.  Visit with friends and family virtually instead of in person.  And please, for the love of God, please wear your mask.

The end of this pandemic is coming, and that should motivate all of us even more to save lives along the way by doing our part.

GOVERNOR HOGAN:  Thank you very much, Mr. County Executive.  Thank you for all that you are doing and thank you for joining us here today.

Last month we doubled our state relief investment to $500 million to fund a combination of new small business relief programs to protect jobs and to expand our existing successful programs in order to immediately provide additional desperately needed relief to the businesses and their employees who are most in need, including restaurants, who have been hit particularly hard.  And we included another $50 million in direct relief specifically for restaurants, which the state is distributing through our county government partners.

In the spring we took statewide action to make it easier for restaurants to adapt their operations for carryout and delivery services, including allowing for the offsite alcohol sales and delivery.  And as we weather this fall surge of the virus, I want to again strongly encourage Marylanders to support their local restaurants.

With that, I’m going to turn it over to Marshall Weston, who is the President and CEO of the Restaurant Association of Maryland.  I want to thank the association for all of their efforts working in partnership with us and thank you, Marshall, for your service on our restaurant advisory group, which has been providing industry-specific guidance and input for helping us to keep our restaurants safely open and operating throughout this pandemic.

MARSHALL WESTON:  Thank you, Governor.

The restaurants of Maryland appreciate that you understand just how important they are to every community.  And also your willingness to hear out the concerns as one of the top private sector employers in the state of Maryland.  Restaurants provide an essential service and are the backbone of every community.  They are dedicated to their employees by offering first jobs and careers with advancement opportunities.  They’re dedicated to their customers by providing exceptional designing options and service.  And they’re dedicated to their communities and neighborhoods by supporting local charities, youth sports teams, and neighborhood events.  No neighborhood is complete without the restaurants that bring them all together.  That is why it’s so important for Marylanders to support restaurants, bars, and all small businesses during the holidays.  Now more than ever these businesses cannot be taken for granted.  We need all of us to step up and buy from them over the next several weeks.

Restaurants continue to be ready to provide a safe and regulated space for people to gather with friends and to enjoy a meal over the holidays.  We are hopeful that everyone does their part to help reduce the spread of COVID so that restaurants, bars, and other businesses can remain open and the restrictions will be lifted soon.  We must all continue to wear our mask, socially distance, wash your hands, and respect the restrictions placed upon businesses.  Employees are doing their very best to ensure a safe dining experience.  And with everyone working together, we will remain open and ready to serve.

I know we are all missing and waiting for the day when we can welcome you back to a packed dining room, to see our favorite server or bartender without their mask on, to go to a bustling bar with friends, and attend a large and lively wedding reception without these restrictions.  But until that time, we must all take personal responsibility to do what is necessary to stop the spread of COVID.  Not only to keep everyone safe, but to also keep our employees working and the businesses we love in every community open for business.

Thank you.

GOVERNOR HOGAN:  Thank you.  With that, we would be happy to take some questions.

(Question off mic).

He’s more than welcome to take whatever approach he wants to take.  We’re taking the steps we believe are necessary.

(Question off mic).

In some ways we are in worse shape in that the spike of the curve is higher than it was in some ways than the spring.  Our positivity rate, our hospitalization rate.  We now have a much better understanding of the virus.  We’re keeping people alive.  We’re saving people.  We’re not losing as many.  Folks are not dying at the same rate.  And the therapeutics are better.  We are getting closer on vaccines.  So I’m hopeful in one respect, but this is very scary stuff.  I mean, this really is at the beginning in the spring, everybody, you know, was just shocked by the novelty of it and we were having announcements where we had one death.  And we had a dozen people infected and it was big news.  Now they seem numb to the fact that we lose, you know, 15, 18, 24, 25 people a day.  And they don’t seem to care as much.  But it is a very serious problem, and we’re going to keep asking everybody to take it seriously.  The more seriously we take it, the faster we’ll be able to get it under control.

(Question off mic).

I know that the superintendent had reached out to every single not only county Police Chief and sheriff but all the municipal police departments as well.  It’s not just police either.  Their great task force, you know, I was watching the news and saying how impressed I was.  They were bringing people from the fire department to come out and talk to businesses about being safe.  I mentioned licensing, liquor boards, whoever we can get out there to help.  We’re hopeful that all counties will participate in one way or another.  We will be sending police to every single county.

(Question off mic).

Yeah, so we just got briefed.  Several members of the team gave us kind of the latest on where they were with the vaccine.  They’re still hopeful — and don’t quote me because I can’t guarantee that these dates will be made, but they really are hopeful that by the end of the year, so next month sometime, and/or at the latest the very beginning of next year, that we will start to have vaccines available.  We have not committed to how many, what the production will be, how much each state will get.  We have an approved plan that we submitted that talks about the prioritization of our most vulnerable, our healthcare workers and those in nursing homes.  But we don’t know exactly how many or when.  We just know we will prioritize the people who need it most.

(Question off mic).

Look, The Washington Post story was basically a regurgitation of all the other stories that we’ve been hearing about for 6 months.  We have not had a single problem with one single LabGenomics test kit.  We have had enormous problems with lab capacity, with acquiring reagents and testing solutions and swabs, we had to utilize the Defense Production Act.  Originally the FDA emergency authorization changed.  Metrics were slightly different.  The tests were fine, but the FDA changed the rules so we immediately got the company to upgrade for an even faster test that met the FDA guidelines and we have used them very successfully for the last 6 months and we’ll be glad to use every single one.  We have never had a problem with one test kit.  We’ve had all kinds of challenges in testing but this was the highlight of a success story here in Maryland.

(Question off mic).

I have confidence.  Our system has worked well for a couple hundred years.  We’re going to have a peaceful transition of power.  You know, Joe Biden is going to be the next President.  He is the President-elect.  He will be sworn in on January 20.

What happens between now and then, I believe there’s going to be continuing increasing pressure on the President to make the right decision.  My biggest concern when you take away all the politics and all the spins on social media, is that we’re in the middle of a deadly crisis, where 260,000 Americans have died.  And we’re about to hit the worst peak.  And the incoming administration is not even talking to or getting any information from the outgoing administration, and that is really a scary situation.

(Question off mic).

I thought the question was something about what George Washington said on Twitter.

Really, the symbolism of George Washington was not something we thought about, but if you remember back at the peak of the virus, we were holding our press conferences outdoors, and then we were holding them inside this room which has a lot more air and we can be a lot more spread out, which is why we’re having one TV camera rather than 8-10, which is why everybody is spread out and we have a limited number.  But we just thought now that the virus is worse, we’re going to heed our own advice and help people to be socially distanced and get the air quality.

(Question off mic).

I would rather not talk in public about any private conversations I might have with friends, but I think the Vice President is pretty well aware of my position.

(Question off mic).

It’s sort of like saying I have a constitutional right to drive drunk.  I have a constitutional right to not wear a seatbelt or to yell “fire!” in a crowded movie theater or to not follow the speed limit.  You know, we’re talking about a quarter of a million people dying already.  More than the Korean War, the Gulf War, and the Vietnam War together.  Which part don’t you understand?  There’s no constitutional right to walk around without a mask.  We did it in 1918.  I don’t know why we can’t do it now.

(Question off mic).

Yeah, it is an interesting challenge, but it’s good that we have multiple competing vaccines that are all getting to the finish line.  So because not one company is going to have the capability of worldwide manufacturing at the capacity we need, so having three at this point potentially big companies that can all knock this out.  But it is a little more complicated and we’ve taken that in to our consideration with our planning and discussions with our state leaders, Health Department, and federal government, about some need to be at extremely cold temperatures, the others don’t, so we’re providing for both.  In some cases you have to get two vaccines, you have to keep track of all that information to make sure they get the right one and who has been vaccinated with which vaccine.  So it’s complicated.  But the good news is, we will have vaccines available.

SPEAKER:  Last question.

(Question off mic).

GOVERNOR HOGAN:  We have cold storage capability, Dry Ice capability, and new contracts for emergency procurements so we are absolutely ready the minute that we get our testing kits.

All right.  Thank you, everybody.