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Gov. Larry Hogan was lauded for his early handling of the pandemic. Then Maryland’s unemployment system failed and problems mounted.
As the deadly coronavirus pandemic spread into Maryland in March, Gov. Larry Hogan’s decisions to swiftly shut down schools and businesses won bipartisan applause from a scared public desperate for leadership.
A month later, in a celebrated coup, the governor secured 500,000 much-needed COVID-19 tests from South Korea, landing him on another round of national TV programs.
But in recent days, some who once praised Hogan’s leadership have criticized the state’s response to the pandemic. Problems have mounted on several fronts ? most notably, a balky unemployment website that’s frustrating thousands of workers who lost their jobs amid Hogan’s shutdown orders.
“This system nearly killed me and other people ? thousands ? through stress,” one unemployed man, Will Thomas of Reisterstown, testified Tuesday before a virtual hearing of state lawmakers. Thomas called those running the state’s unemployment system “incompetent” and an “embarrassment
Then he watched Hogan claim at a news conference that the unemployment website was “completely fixed and functioning very well," before joking with a reporter about reopening golf courses. The comments left Thomas enraged.
“The governor makes jokes with a reporter after saying the system works and has been fixed?” he asked incredulously.
About one in five working Marylanders has filed for unemployment benefits since the outbreak. Of those, tens of thousands of Maryland residents report getting stuck in the unemployment system.
But the failings of the state’s overwhelmed unemployment system aren’t the only problems the Hogan administration is encountering.
Many small businesses haven’t gotten their promised state aid. A botched contract to buy masks and ventilators from a politically connected company drew national headlines. Questions linger about Hogan’s much-touted purchase of half a million coronavirus tests from South Korea and whether they’re being deployed efficiently.
And, while dozens of Marylanders continue to die each day from the pandemic ? including about 1,000 deaths at nursing homes ? many residents are debating the wisdom of Hogan’s decision to begin a phased-in reopening of the state Friday. Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, was among those initially supportive of the Republican governor’s performance. But that was before he watched some important state systems fail.
“The governor is in a very challenging position that nobody could have expected and nobody asks for,” Ferguson said. “As the pressure has built around the politics and the management of the crisis, I have concerns I didn’t have previously. About 135,000 unemployed Marylanders are still in the adjudication process. Hearing the governor say the system is fixed while it’s not does nothing but perpetuate the problem.”
Despite a rocky start, Ricci said Maryland is now the only state in the country with a comprehensive system for unemployment claims that allows users to collect both regular unemployment benefits and new enhanced federal benefits in one place. He noted nearly 330,000 Marylanders have received their unemployment benefits.
“We are all dealing with an unprecedented situation, doing things in days that would normally take weeks, and in weeks that would normally take months,” Ricci said. “Our job is to tune out the politics, and focus on helping as many people as possible as fast as possible.”
Many questions also remain about how well the state is ramping up testing and why more of the 500,000 tests the Hogan administration bought for more than $9 million from South Korea haven’t been deployed.
The Rev. Bruce Lewandowski, pastor of Southeast Baltimore’s Sacred Heart of Jesus congregation, recently hosted a coronavirus testing site with Johns Hopkins Hospital and the city of Baltimore. A line of more than 400 people formed, but the church testing site had only about 200 tests available.
“We need to find out what happened to the 500,000 tests,” Lewandowski said. “We’re a hot spot for the virus. We have a lot of sick people show up and they should get a test.”
Lewandowski said without widespread testing, he won’t feel comfortable reopening his church.
“We’re telling people to still stay home. We are telling people to have church online,” he said.
Patrick Moran, head of the largest union for state employees, said he is not surprised that Hogan seems to be struggling in some areas. The American Federal of State, County and Municipal Employees has long criticized the governor for what it says is his understaffing and underfunding of state agencies.
Moran said Hogan clearly has a savvy media strategy that landed him rosy interviews on cable TV.
At the same time, the state has been slow to provide masks, gloves and other equipment to state employees who work in prisons, hospitals and juvenile justice center, Moran said.
“Things are only addressed when it becomes an embarrassment. I think that is poor leadership. It’s governing by news release,” Moran said.
Hogan is also catching flak from both sides of the debate over how quickly the state should lift restrictions on businesses and gatherings. The governor on Friday lifted the state’s stay-at-home order allowing manufacturing, retail, haircuts and worship services to resume with limitations.
But that wasn’t enough for protesters who want the governor to immediately lift all restrictions. More than 100 people gathered at State Circle in Annapolis Friday afternoon — some carrying signs that said “Heil Hogan” and “Lock up the tyrant” — to protest coronavirus lockdown measures hours before the state’s gradual reopening was set to begin.
Meanwhile, Dr. Tom Inglesby, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an adviser to the governor, endorsed some of Hogan’s reopening plans, but not others.
Inglesby said he was concerned about reopening indoor religious services and barbershops and hair salons.
“I think reopening churches at this point seems to be too high risk," he said.
The governor said this week he is trying to take a middle-of-the-road approach to reopening that tries to keep people safe from the virus while helping the unemployed.
Small business owner Donna Sita, a longtime Democrat, said she has nothing but praise for how Hogan is handling the pandemic.
Sita owns Divine Details, selling vintage and artisan goods at her own shop in Millersville and at an antiques shop in Gambrills.
“I have respected Governor Hogan’s leadership so much,” Sita said. “First of all, he’s about the facts. It’s not so political, like everything that I’m listening to.”
Where have all the doctors gone? Medical opinion is taking a back seat as economic worries mount
Nothing better illustrates the divergent forces at work in crafting the nation’s response to the coronavirus outbreak than how certain individuals have responded to COVID-19 exposure. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has recently embraced a form of self-quarantine because he came into contact with an individual who tested positive. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Stephen M. Hahn and Dr. Robert Redfield of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have elected to self-quarantine for the same reason as well. And what about Vice President Mike Pence whose own press secretary was diagnosed Friday? He traveled to Iowa the same day to attend a public meeting with food industry executives during which neither he nor they wore masks. On Monday, he was apparently back at work in the White House electing not to self-isolate as others have done in similar circumstances.
But whether or not Mr. Pence sets a good example to the public (he doesn’t, obviously) is beside the point. Dr. Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, the high-profile medical experts on the White House’s coronavirus task force, have been doing a pretty good imitation of working out of public view for the past two weeks through no fault of their own. Long gone are those daily briefings where one, or usually both, would provide the nation with their wise counsel. There have been no task force briefings, and President Donald Trump even briefly flirted with the idea of disbanding the group. The focus now is on loosening stay-at-home restrictions, and the physicians are likely perceived as wholly unhelpful to that cause. They might observe, for example, that some governors aren’t following recommended best practices and moving too quickly to spur their floundering economies at a cost of thousands of American lives.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with considering the ramifications of an extended lockdown including its cost to human health and longevity. These are not easy choices. In Maryland, for example, Gov. Larry Hogan may soon be announcing an easing of restrictions as hospitalization numbers have stabilized for nearly two weeks. But it would be absurd to imply that choice holds no risk. It does, and it needs to be weighed. Similarly, denying Dr. Fauci and other medical experts a place at the White House podium won’t make the facts go away.
It is beyond tiresome that President Trump and his top aides formulate coronavirus policy much like a cow wandering down a hillside eventually wears down a path that zigs and zags and loops back on itself. The outbreak is serious, and it isn’t. Testing is available, or it won’t be. The president sets the policy, or it’s the governors. Federal guidelines are important, or protesters are correct that they are unbearable. There simply isn’t a position this White House hasn’t taken at some point over the past three months no matter how it contradicts past statements. Someone tie a bell around that president’s neck.
All we ask is one simple thing: Put the doctors back on the front line. Americans will surely settle for a Zoom chat to accommodate the self-quarantines. Stop soft-selling us on infection rates and deaths. There are tough choices ahead, but they don’t become any easier if we stop paying attention to the public health experts and listen only to the bean-counters. The good news is that there’s been some success in bending the infection curve; now is not the time to abandon a strategy that works merely because some of the president’s most clamorous supporters are protesting restrictions.
Pence staff threatens action against reporter who tweeted about visit to clinic without surgical mask
Vice President Pence’s office has threatened to retaliate against a reporter who revealed that Pence’s office had told journalists they would need masks for Pence’s visit to the Mayo Clinic — a requirement Pence himself did not follow.
Pence’s trip to the clinic Tuesday generated criticism after he was photographed without a surgical mask — the only person in the room not wearing one. The Minnesota clinic requires visitors to wear masks as a precaution against spreading the coronavirus.
Pence’s wife, Karen Pence, said in an interview with Fox News on Thursday that he was unaware of the mask policy until his visit was over.
But Steve Herman, who covers the White House for Voice of America, suggested that there was more to the story after Karen Pence’s interview.
“All of us who traveled with [Pence] were notified by the office of @VP the day before the trip that wearing of masks was required by the @MayoClinic and to prepare accordingly,” tweeted Herman, who covered the trip as part of his rotation as one of the pool reporters, who share information with other reporters in limited-space situations.
The tweet apparently enraged Pence’s staff, which told Herman that he had violated the off-the-record terms of a planning memo that had been sent to him and other reporters in advance of Pence’s trip.
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Herman said he was notified by the White House Correspondents’ Association that Pence’s office had banned him from further travel on Air Force Two, although a spokesperson in Pence’s office later told VOA managers than any punishment was still under discussion, pending an apology from Herman or VOA.
VOA is continuing to talk with Pence’s staff, said Yolanda Lopez, the director of VOA’s news center. She said it wasn’t clear how the vice president intended to proceed.
Pence’s press secretary, Katie Miller, declined to comment.
The issue, according to people involved, is whether Herman’s tweet violated the off-the-record terms of a planning document sent via email Monday evening by the vice president’s office to reporters who planned to travel with Pence to the clinic.
A copy of the document obtained by The Washington Post explicitly stated that masks are required for the visit and instructed reporters to wear them. “Please note, the Mayo Clinic is requiring all individuals traveling with the VP wear masks,” the document said. “Please bring one to wear while on the trip.”
The directive confirms that Pence’s staff was well aware of the need for masks, raising the possibility that none of his aides alerted him to the requirement or that Pence had intentionally flouted it, perhaps to avoid being photographed in a mask. (Pence himself told reporters after the visit that because he doesn’t have the coronavirus — he is tested frequently — he decided he could “speak to these researchers, these incredible health-care personnel, and look them in the eye and say thank you.”)
However, the planning document is marked, “OFF THE RECORD AND FOR PLANNING PURPOSES ONLY.” The off-the-record designation is standard for such logistical memos, indicating reporters are obligated not to publish or report the information. The White House typically keeps planning information confidential to maintain security for official trips.
But there’s some question about how long the obligation lasts — whether it is permanent or only applies to the period before and during the trip.
Herman’s tweet came nearly 48 hours after the vice president’s trip had ended, suggesting the vice president’s staff was more embarrassed by the disclosure than concerned about security.
“My tweet speaks for itself,” Herman said in a statement. “We always have and will strictly adhere to keeping off the record any White House communications to reporters for planning purposes involving logistics that have security implications prior to events. . . . All White House pool reporters, including myself and my VOA colleagues, take this very seriously.”
As is, the vice president’s office took no action against another reporter, Gordon Lubold of the Wall Street Journal, who traveled with Pence and tweeted something similar to Herman’s tweet Thursday. “Everyone in the entire Mayo Clinic had a mask on, everyone, and we were all told the day before we had to wear a mask if we entered the clinic,” Lubold tweeted.
In a now-deleted tweet, the clinic said it had alerted Pence to its mask policy before his visit. A later statement from the clinic said only that it had informed Pence’s office of the policy, not Pence personally.
Voice of America is a government-funded but independent news agency that has lately been the object of White House criticism. The Trump administration accused VOA this month of promoting Chinese government propaganda in its reporting about the coronavirus. The VOA’s director, Amanda Bennett, has defended its independence.
On Thursday, Pence wore a mask as he toured a General Motors auto plant in Indiana that has been converted into a factory making ventilators for hospitals around the country.
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