Maryland Delegates argue passionately over ‘Juneteenth’ bill

Capital News Service Annapolis Bureau

In support of a bill that would make “Juneteenth” a state and employee-paid holiday, a Maryland Delegate on Monday gave an impassioned speech, which ended with a standing ovation from some colleagues.  

Others in the Legislature were equally impassioned that including paid leave in the bill could be costly, especially during a year that many Marylanders have struggled financially. 

Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, D-Prince Georges and Anne Arundel, argued in support of HB448 on the floor of the House annex on Monday as she and other colleagues fought for the bill to advance to the Senate.

“Powerful words from Joseline Peña-Melnyk this morning in support of making Juneteenth a paid state holiday,” Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, D-Montgomery, wrote in a tweet Monday. “Proud to cast my vote green.”

HB448, which would take effect on June 1, if passed, establishes Juneteenth National Freedom Day as a state legal and employee holiday on June 19.

“Let’s talk about what Juneteenth is,” Peña-Melnyk said on the House floor Monday.  “It is the independence day of the African American citizens.  It is the day that Blacks were recognized as people. It is the day that Blacks stopped being property. It is the day that Blacks could claim citizenship, but not many people know that.”

On June 19, 1865, two years after President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Union Soldiers arrived in Texas to inform people that the war was over and enslaved people were now freed.  

That day, known as Juneteenth to many, was celebrated unofficially in the African American community, and in 1980, Texas became the first state that had officially made Juneteenth a holiday. 

“We are (ensuring) that the 6 million people living in Maryland know what that day stands for, so when they see someone that looks like me, they can think about what that community has gone through,” Peña-Melnyk said.

Lead sponsor of HB448, Del. Andrea Fletcher Harrison, D-Prince George’s, testified during a March 16 committee hearing that Capital News Service viewed that everyone should recognize this holiday, whether or not they identify as Black.  

In 2014, a bill was passed that required the governor annually to proclaim June 19 as Juneteenth National Freedom Day, a commemorative day in Maryland.

“There has been very little done to truly appreciate the blood, sweat, and tears of those Blacks that built this state by way of their servitude,” Harrison said. “It is time for us to celebrate this as a paid holiday.”

Currently, Maryland recognizes 16 legal holidays and 12 State employee holidays, according to the bill’s policy analysis, and if passed, Juneteenth National Freedom Day would join those dates.

The policy analysis also states that, “a State employee who is required to work on an employee holiday receives compensatory time for that work. An employee not scheduled to work on an employee holiday, but otherwise required to work on that day, is eligible for compensation.”

Harrison also testified that establishing Juneteenth as a holiday would serve as a way for Maryland to recognize that the country has not fully addressed our past.

She cited the recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, all Black Americans who died last year and whose deaths she said sparked a revolution in America.

Harrison described the revolution as people around the world beginning to “open their eyes to the plight of Black people in this country.”

“It is important to recognize that Black Americans have been fighting for justice since this country’s inception,” Harrison testified.

During the House floor session Monday, Minority Whip Del. Kathy Szeliga, R-Baltimore and Harford counties, argued that the bill should be declared a legal holiday, but not yet an employee-paid holiday.  

“When we have more than 1 million Marylanders on unemployment, should we give the 71,000 state workers a paid day off?” Szeliga argued.  “I asked. I pleaded. I begged leaders here in the House of Delegates to make this a legal holiday that we can all get behind without it being a paid day off.”

Szeliga argued that the small businesses who struggled during the pandemic would be the ones to pay the taxes to support this bill and would not be able to celebrate this paid day off.

The policy analysis for HB448 estimates state expenditures increasing at least $1.9 million annually for overtime costs.

“I desperately want to vote for this bill, but I cannot burden those people with a multimillion dollar bill to help people who have had a paycheck over this pandemic.”

Peña-Melnyk countered Szeliga and argued that Maryland has done a lot for the people that Szeliga referenced as struggling, citing the Maryland RELIEF Act and other bills that have passed to aid Marylanders during the pandemic.

“We are and have been responsible,” Peña-Melnyk said. “However, this bill speaks volumes because many of those state workers are people of color. … Many of them, while we can stay home, risk their lives every day without proper PPE. They’re taking care of us so that the economy can keep running.”

Peña-Melnyk also argued that people of color and immigrant communities have experienced the disparate effects of the pandemic most.

She cited Prince George’s County, a majority-minority county, and Hyattsville, a city with a large immigrant population, as having some of the highest-reported cases of Covid-19 in the state.

The bill advanced in the House of Delegates with a vote of 112-24 and has been sent to the Senate, where the Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee will have a hearing on it.

Maryland’s COVID-fighting complex

Capital News Service 

When Novavax Inc. received $1.6 billion last year from the federal government to speed up testing and production of a coronavirus vaccine, some observers were incredulous. The small biotechnology firm, based in Gaithersburg, Maryland, was largely unknown and had never successfully brought a product to market.

But now that the company nears completion of its Phase 3 trials for its COVID-19 vaccine, which was found to be nearly 90% effective during clinical testing in the United Kingdom, it is grabbing headlines around the world.

Novavax’s newfound fame is casting a light not only on its own unique story, but also — more broadly — on Maryland’s growing biohealth industry. About 40 companies in Maryland are playing some role in the coronavirus response, either by producing a vaccine, medication, therapeutics, diagnostic tests or supplying research, according to Martin Rosendale, the chief executive of Maryland Tech Council, a trade association that supports technology and life science companies.

When the pandemic first surfaced, Maryland Tech Council created what it called the “Maryland COVID Coalition” that pulled together dozens of companies from across the state that were working on, or starting to work on, coronavirus-related products. The group met monthly to share research and resources. “We realized how serious it was going to be and the response was going to be happening here in Maryland,” said Rosendale. “Everybody came together, everybody realized that we needed to work together,” he said.

“We had collaborations everywhere.”

One of the leading companies is Emergent BioSolutions Inc., also headquartered in Gaithersburg, founded 22 years ago and best known for supplying huge amounts of anthrax vaccine to the U.S. government’s emergency medical reserves, which are stockpiled in the event of a terrorist attack. Emergent not only manufacturers its own proprietary vaccines and pharmaceuticals, but also contracts out its manufacturing capabilities to other companies and the federal government.

In the past year, the company has landed nine contracts to manufacture coronavirus-related products for companies, including manufacturing all or part of vaccines for Johnson & Johnson, Novavax and AstraZeneca plc.

The contract with J&J alone calls for Emergent to manufacture 1 billion doses of the COVID vaccine. The U.S. federal government plans this week to purchase an additional 100 million of J&J’s single-shot doses for Americans, on top of an original 100 million doses purchased last summer as part of Operation Warp Speed.

Emergent is one of 10 companies worldwide helping to produce the J&J vaccine, according to J&J’s website. While it’s not unusual for drug companies to contract out some of its manufacturing capabilities, the current pandemic rush has prompted vaccine makers to partner with a larger number of contractors in an effort to scale up quickly. Earlier this month, the White House announced that Merck, a pharmaceutical giant based in New Jersey, will also help produce the J&J vaccine.

The COVID contracts helped to sharply boost Emergent earnings last year. The company reported revenue over $1.6 billion for 2020, up 41% from 2019. Its net income jumped to $305.1 million, up from $54.5 million in 2019.

Each contract varies in scope. Some contracts require Emergent to provide all three stages of a drug’s production, from development to producing substances that go into the drug to the finished vaccine. Other contracts require Emergent to provide just one stage of production.

Emergent has four facilities in Maryland, and about 1,000 of its total 2,400 workforce is employed in the state. The Gaithersburg facility handles development work and the Bayview (Baltimore) facility conducts work on substances. The manufacturing plants in Rockville and Camden Yards are for “fill and finishing” where the product is loaded into vials, labeled and placed in boxes for shipment.

Syed Husain, who heads Emergent’s contract development and manufacturing division, said the company’s Baltimore and Rockville plants are able to manufacture four different vaccines at the same time but in separate suites. “Think of it as four plants within one plant,” he said. “Everything is segregated. So we’re working on one product (and) that’s the only thing that can be in a suite. But given the fact that it’s multi-product capable, you can work on one product, and then you can change over and then work on another product.”

Husain said that production has accelerated since October 2020, with plants operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “We are manufacturing drug substance to support hundreds of millions of doses on a monthly basis and more than a billion doses annually,” he said.

Meanwhile, Emergent is developing its own products, including two plasma-based therapeutics that could be potential treatments for hospitalized patients with coronavirus disease. The company announced in October that one of the therapeutics entered Phase 3 clinical trials.

Other Maryland companies working on COVID-19 products include Altimmune Inc., which is working on a vaccine and therapy that can be sprayed into the nasal cavity instead of being administered via a shot in the arm; Qiagen NV, which is developing a rapid test that can detect coronavirus within an hour; Amarex Clinical Research LLC, working on a treatment for some COVID-19 symptoms; and Vigene Biosciences Inc., which provides viral vector-based gene delivery services and products for research and clinical applications.

Maryland has a high concentration of biohealth companies in part due its close proximity to the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration as well as research institutions including the University of Maryland.

Richard Bendis, president and chief executive of BioHealth Innovation Inc., a nonprofit that networks with companies in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, said the region ranks fourth in the nation for the number of biohealth companies, after San Francisco, Boston and New York.

“You want to be in a region where there’s other companies that do similar work,” which makes it easier to “attract some of the top scientists, researchers and business people,” said Bendis. He noted that GlaxoSmithKline plc, the large British pharmaceutical company, located its North American headquarters in Maryland partly due to the proximity to NIH and numerous research institutions with which it can collaborate. In 2012, Glaxo purchased Human Genome Sciences Inc. of Rockville for $3.6 billion.

In addition to the human genome business that Glaxo acquired, several other companies in Maryland are doing research that uses the human DNA sequence to develop targeted drugs. That research is important for the development of vaccines.

Dozens of companies
Novavax Inc. and Emergent BioSolutions Inc. are two of the largest companies in Maryland working on remedies to fight COVID-19. But there are dozens of other companies responding to the coronavirus pandemic by producing vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics. Here’s a quick look at a few of the companies.

Qiagen, Germantown, Maryland, North American headquarters
Employees: 1,328 in America and 5,610 internationally
In March of 2020, Qiagen received FDA emergency authorization for a test that differentiates the novel coronavirus from other respiratory infections in an hour. At the end of January of this year, Qiagen planned to resubmit an antigen test for emergency authorization after withdrawing it from submission in November due to a chemistry issue that the company says has been fixed.

Amarex Clinical Research, Germantown, Maryland
Employees: 100
Amarex, a contract research organization, has assisted 16 companies on 32 different coronavirus-related products since last March. Most recently, they reached full enrollment for Phase 3 clinical trials for leronlimab, a potential treatment for severe-to-critical COVID-19 symptoms. Full data analysis results are expected by the end of this month.

Altimmune Inc., Gaithersburg, Maryland
Employees: 43
Altimmune is a biopharmaceutical company focused on treating liver diseases and immune modulating therapies. Altimmune is working on a Covid therapy and is working with Vigene Biosciences Inc. on the development of a single-dose intranasal Covid vaccine. The products are in early clinical phases.

Vigene Biosciences Inc., Rockville, Maryland
Employees: 80
Vigene is a biotech company focused on offering viral vectors and plasmids to help with vaccine and therapy development. In the fight against COVID-19, Vigene is helping to produce research genomes to help with the development of COVID-19 vaccines.

Democrats want total ban on members carrying guns in the U.S. Capitol


Capital News Service Washington Bureau

In the wake of the Jan. 6 assault on the United States Capitol and some members of Congress carrying firearms near the House floor, Democratic lawmakers are proposing a ban on guns in Congress. 

“I’ve been pushing for years to change this outdated rule, knowing there was an inevitable risk in allowing members to carry guns in the Capitol,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-California, the primary sponsor of the ban, said in a statement. “While we’d like to think we could rely on common decency, we now have colleagues who are QAnon and white supremacist sympathizers, incite violence and insurrection, and have even bragged about bringing guns into the House chamber.”

Huffman so far has collected 39 Democratic cosponsors for his measure.

The lawmaker introduced the bill in late January after Rep. Andy Harris, R-Cockeysville, was stopped short of the House floor for carrying a gun. Other Republicans previously had ignored metal detectors placed at the entrance to the House floor after the Capitol assault, prompting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, to impose fines on anyone refusing to abide by the security procedures.

Firearms, dangerous weapons, explosives, or incendiary devices already are expressly forbidden near or on the House floor. 

Huffman’s legislation addresses a loophole in current Capitol Police Board regulations that allows members of Congress and their staffs to carry weapons on the Capitol grounds. If enacted, the bill not only would ban weapons but also would require members to follow the gun safety and registration requirements established by the District of Columbia. 

“These outdated and dangerous rules must be modernized. Members of Congress should not be above the law,” Huffman said. 

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, echoed the concern. 

“The existing exemption for representatives increases the risk of gun violence for members, staff, and the public,” she said in the statement. “It’s long past time we close the member loophole and protect all who enter the Capitol complex.”

Harris alerted a magnetometer Jan. 21 outside of the House chamber and was found to be carrying a concealed firearm. The incident resulted in Harris receiving a security pat-down and the Capitol Police launching an investigation. 

Capitol Police did not respond to Capital News Service about whether the investigation into Harris is still open.

Harris’s chief of staff, Bryan Shuy, issued a statement following the incident, saying it was a matter of public record that Harris has a Maryland handgun permit, always follows House rules regarding metal detectors and wanding and has never brought a firearm onto the House floor. 

“Because his and his family’s lives have been threatened by someone who has been released awaiting trial, for security reasons, the congressman never confirms whether he nor anyone else he’s with are carrying a firearm for self-defense,” Shuy said.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, told CNN’s Chris Cuomo that Harris’s “attempt” of Harris to bring a gun onto the House floor was disturbing.

“I don’t care if you accidentally set it off. I don’t care if you intentionally set it off. I don’t care if you don’t set it off at all,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “You are endangering the lives of members of Congress, and it is absolutely outrageous that we even have to have this conversation.” 

Ocasio-Cortez is not a cosponsor of Huffman’s No Congressional Loophole Act. 

The bill’s supporters argue that members of Congress should be held to the same laws as all those who walk through the Capitol grounds. Huffman said that given the rise of political violence, members and their staffs not complying with gun safety standards leads to an unsafe workplace. 

“As a survivor of gun violence, I know what it’s like to battle for your life after being shot five times and left for dead,” Speier said. “And statistics show that accidents happen when there are firearms around.” 

Speier was a congressional aide when she was severely wounded during a 1978 ambush by People’s Temple followers in Jonestown, Guyana, an attack that left five people dead, including her boss, Rep. Leo Ryan, D-California.

Opponents of the bill claim that such an act would infringe on lawmakers’ right to self-defense in a time of ever-growing threats and political violence.

A group of 83 House Republicans signed a letter to House leadership urging both parties’ leaders not to change the rules governing the carrying of firearms. The letter cited a history of violent attacks on members of Congress and Capitol Police. 

“Protecting the safety and lives of members of Congress is of the utmost concern and isn’t a partisan issue,” the letter said. “We ask that you stand with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle that support the lawful and current Capitol Police Board regulations that have existed for more than half a century.”

A proposal similar to Huffman’s was not included in the rules package governing the 117th United States Congress. 

Huffman’s proposal was referred to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for consideration.

“For everyone’s safety, members of Congress must be subject to the same gun restrictions that apply to everyone else who visits or works in the Capitol,” Huffman said.

Biden administration attempts to revive Iran nuclear talks, but tensions persist


Capital News Service Washington Bureau

The Biden administration’s attempts to revive talks with Iran over curbing its nuclear program are complicated by continuing tensions over human rights abuses, the unsolved fate of the longest-held American hostage, Iranian proxy attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, and bipartisan pressure from Congress to expand the parameters of any new deal. 

The State Department announced on Feb. 18 the United States would accept an invitation from the European Union High Representative to attend a meeting of the five United Nations Security Council members and Iran to discuss the future of the Iranian nuclear program. 

The Biden administration has since rescinded former President Donald Trump’s determination that all U.S. sanctions against Iran must be restored; also rescinded were heavy travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats posted to the United Nations. 

Despite these steps, the administration has made it clear the United States would only return to the 2015 nuclear agreement if Iran would comply with the original terms. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reassured lawmakers Wednesday at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that those requirements have not changed.

Iran announced on Feb. 23 that it had halted voluntary implementation of additional protocols agreed to under the deal, a sign interpreted by the international community that Tehran intended to ramp up its nuclear program. 

Iran also initially indicated it was not willing to attend EU-brokered talks with Washington regarding the deal. Iran’s leaders cited as a prime reason for the continuing heavy sanctions imposed by Washington. 

“Considering the recent actions and statements by the United States and three European powers, Iran does not consider this the time to hold an informal meeting with these countries, which was proposed by the EU foreign policy chief,” Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said Feb. 28. 

Iran has since softened, announcing last Friday that it would be ready to resume talks if the United States and other western powers provide a “clear signal” that sanctions, dating back to the Carter administration, will be lifted within a year. 

In a meeting with Irish Defense Minister Simon Coveney, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said, “Iran is ready to immediately take compensatory measures based on the nuclear deal and fulfill its commitments just after the U.S. illegal sanctions are lifted and it abandons its policy of threats and pressure.”

In an interview with the Financial Times, former Revolutionary Guards commander and potential conservative presidential candidate Mohsen Rezaei said sanctions would have to be lifted monthly, with top priority given to financial transactions and oil exports. 

Even so, the fraught U.S.-Iran relationship has multiple unresolved issues.

On Tuesday, the State Department urged the Iranian government to address the disappearance 14 years ago of former FBI agent Robert Levinson. U.S. officials believe he was taken hostage off Iran’s coast, but Tehran has denied it knows anything about him. Levinson’s family has said it is likely he died in Iranian custody.

“We call on the Iranian government to provide credible answers to what happened to Bob Levinson and to immediately and safely release all U.S. citizens who are unjustly held captive in Iran,” Blinken said in a statement. “The abhorrent act of unjust detentions for political gain must cease immediately.”

Also on Tuesday, the State Department designated two interrogators with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps “for their involvement in gross violations of human rights, namely the torture and/or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of political prisoners and persons detained during protests in 2019 and 2020 in Iran,” Blinken said.

Under the designation, the two will be barred from entry to the United States.

“We will continue to consider all appropriate tools to impose costs on those responsible for human rights violations and abuses in Iran,” Blinken said. “We will also work with our allies to promote accountability for such violations and abuses.”

Iran and the United States also are colliding in the Mideast, where Iran-backed militia in Syria last month attacked American troops in Iraq. President Joe Biden subsequently ordered retaliatory airstrikes.

Such clashes underscore concerns among Democrats and Republicans in Congress that renewing the nuclear deal must encompass broader issues such as Iran’s efforts to expand its influence in the region and its sponsorship of terrorism.

In a letter Tuesday organized by Reps. Anthony Brown, D-Largo, and Michael Waltz, R-Florida, a bipartisan group of 140 House members told Blinken that the United States and its allies “must engage Iran through a combination of diplomatic and sanction mechanisms to achieve full compliance of international obligations and a demonstrated commitment by Iran to addressing its malign behavior.”

“Three core tenets – their nuclear program, their ballistic missile program, and their funding of terrorism – must be addressed from the outset,” the lawmakers wrote. 

The nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has been in limbo following the U.S. withdrawal in 2018 by Trump. 

Negotiated during the Obama administration and in partnership with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the agreement was created to limit Iran’s nuclear program and uranium enrichment. 

In response to Washington’s withdrawal, Iran began ramping up nuclear activity, enriching uranium up to 20%, above the 3.67% limit set in the 2015 deal, but under the 90% level of weapons-grade uranium.

Under the terms of the nuclear deal, Iran is only allowed to enrich uranium with a certain type of less sophisticated centrifuges. Since the United State’s withdrawal from the agreement, Iran has installed advanced centrifuges. 

A report issued Monday by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found that Iran began enriching uranium with a third centrifuge cascade, directly violating the clause regarding centrifuge technology. 

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have been mounting since the withdrawal, escalating in 2020 with the death of the commander of Iranian forces, Qassim Suleimani, in an airstrike in Iraq. 

Iran will prove as intransigent under the Biden administration as it was during the Trump years, according to Ellie Geranmayeh, senior policy fellow and deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. She spoke at a Brookings Institution panel on Iran last month. 

Geranmayeh believes that despite Iran’s economic state, the government believes it can manage and even prolong an impasse for another four years if need be, while also expanding nuclear activities to the levels negotiated in the initial 2015 agreement. 

She added the Iranian government’s position on the country’s economic status can be backed up from data coming from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank that “suggest that Iran, even with Trump-era sanctions in place, even with the COVID pandemic, is likely to see a marginal upward growth.” 

She said that, based on the data suggesting that sanctions are not hurting Iran that much economically, she doesn’t “see any appetite in Tehran right now to negotiate the JCPOA minus or JCPOA plus.” 

However, she said that Iran has left the door open to diplomacy “without moving the goalposts,” making it possible for its return to the negotiating table. 

But Alex Vatanka, the director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute, believes Tehran has no choice but to come back to the table given its current economic troubles.

“They don’t have much choice about what they like and what they don’t like,” Vatanka told Capital News Service. “The question is, how much more sanctions can they endure? They are economically not in a good place.” 

He said Tehran’s hope is to reach a settlement, whether directly or through mediations by the Europeans. But in order to get there, Tehran has to go back and restrict its nuclear activities to convince Washington to lift the sanctions. 

Vatanka said if the talks preliminary to negotiating are successful, then “you can envision a situation where Iran and the U.S. can talk about other issues of concern, including Iran’s regional agenda, its ballistic missile arsenal, and more.” 

When it comes to the issue of sanctions, which date back to President Jimmy Carter and the dissolution of the Iranian monarchy, Vatanka said the easier solution for the U.S. will be to “lift principle sanctions on (Tehran), including Iran’s ability to sell oil related to be able to access international banking system that those two things are the most important part of the sanctions that they like.”

Hogan eases COVID-19 capacity restrictions

Capital News Service Annapolis Bureau

Citing improved metrics in the fight against COVID-19, Gov. Larry Hogan, R, this week announced a sweeping change to the state’s capacity restrictions on many indoor and outdoor activities.

Hogan made the announcement during a press conference Tuesday, about a week after Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, expressed concern over states relaxing restrictions too early.

Walensky made the comments during a White House press briefing on March 1, urging caution as variants of COVID-19 threatened to upend progress on slowing the pandemic.

In Maryland under Hogan’s order, starting Friday at 5 p.m. capacity limits on indoor and outdoor dining establishments will be removed.

Occupancy limits on retail establishments, houses of worship and indoor recreational activities will also be eased for the first time since the pandemic began in March 2020.

Large outdoor sporting facilities, including race tracks and stadiums, will welcome fans for the first time in nearly a year at half capacity. 

“There can be no doubt that we are now closer to that light at the end of the tunnel and a return of some sense of normalcy to our lives” Hogan said during a press conference Tuesday. 

Despite loosened restrictions, social distancing and other preventative measures such as the continued use of masks are still in effect; Hogan credited the use of masks with the state’s improving COVID-19 statistics.

Since Maryland entered phase 1C of vaccination eligibility on Jan. 25, the state has recorded significantly lower figures in both the 7-day average and daily positivity rates; positive cases are down by 45% and 32% respectively.  

Decisions on whether to adopt the updated guidelines will remain with local and municipal governments, Hogan director of communications Mike Ricci confirmed Tuesday in a report published by Maryland Matters.  

Ricci’s comments echoed those made by Hogan, who said at Tuesday’s news conference that he hoped all of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions followed suit in reopening.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott, D, released a statement on Monday saying the city would “continue to lean on the direction of healthcare professionals and local data” on recovery matters.

The statement went on to say that the mayor would review the order to determine the best path forward for the city. 

With the first and second highest proportions of their populations affected by COVID-19, and vaccination rates in the single digits, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties are arguably the two jurisdictions hardest hit by COVID-19.

Neither county has signaled whether they intend to follow the order, or stay with their more restrictive paths. 

The order could bring relief to the state’s tourism industry, which took significant losses as the COVID-19 pandemic affected hotel occupancy and temporarily shuttered popular attractions.

“It’s a good thing for Ocean City to allow the capacity back up…it’s a step in the right direction.” said Joseph Mitrecic, R, president of the Worcester County Board of County Commissioners. 

Worcester County ranks second in proportion of population vaccinated in the state with 24.85% of the county inoculated, according to the state’s coronavirus dashboard. 

Charles County Board of Commissioners President Reuben B. Collins II, D, said in a statement to Capital News Service that the county would adopt the state’s recommendations despite only 13% of the county being vaccinated at time of publication. 

“The continued requirement to maintain social distancing and wear a face mask indoors provides the appropriate safety measures needed,” Collins II said in the statement.

Anne Arundel County announced Tuesday afternoon that they also would follow the governor’s order to reopen their businesses. 

However, the county’s limitations on gatherings of 10 people indoors and 25 outdoors would remain in effect, County Executive Steuart Pittman, D, said in a statement.

Sen. Clarence Lam, D-Howard and Baltimore counties, is a member of the Senate Vaccine Oversight Workgroup and has been vocal about his frustration with the state Health Department’s handling of COVID-19; he worries about the speed at which the governor has decided to reopen.

“I’m concerned because I have not seen any benchmarks, or metrics that the administration has pointed to that we’ve met that indicates that it’s appropriate at this time to very quickly reopen or very quickly lift these restrictions,” Lam told Capital News Service.

Lam said, among other things, he would have liked to see more progress with the COVID-19 vaccine initiative before allowing businesses to loosen restrictions.

The only way of progressing beyond the pandemic is reaching herd immunity, which requires more widespread vaccination, Lam said; he also worries about what the state will do if it needs to impose more restrictions again after reopening.

“We have about 8,000 beds in the state and the whole point of bending the curve is to not have 9,000 cases of COVID at the hospital, then we’re going to end up with a situation that we saw back in April in New York City where there, the system just couldn’t handle overcrowding,” Lam said.

Sen. Adelaide Eckardt, R-Caroline, Dorchester, Talbot, and Wicomico, is also a member of the Senate Vaccine Oversight Workgroup; she supports the governor’s decision to loosen business capacity restrictions.

“I think it’s a good thing; we’re moving in the right direction…last week, we had additional doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine come out, and in the next two weeks we’re probably going to be getting more,” Eckardt told Capital News Service. 

By Wednesday, 389,566 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in the state; the positivity rate stands at 3.61%. 7,820 people have died of COVID-19 in Maryland.

A combined 1,653,670 of first and second-dose vaccines have been administered.

Bill to rebuild trust between immigrants and law enforcement

Capital News Service Annapolis Bureau

A bill that would prohibit law enforcement from inquiring about immigration status and end police cooperation with ICE in Maryland drew emotional testimony from immigrants, advocacy groups and lawmakers on Wednesday.

Referred to as the Trust Act by some, SB0088 and HB0304 would end the federal 287(g) Criminal Alien Program in participating jurisdictions, prevent law enforcement from asking about immigration status and protect immigrants from ICE in sensitive locations, such as schools, courthouses and hospitals. 

The 287(g) Criminal Alien Program allows ICE to enter into agreements with state and local law enforcement to deputize officers as federal immigration agents. 

This bill, which would end those agreements in Maryland, is extremely important to build trust between the police and community. Immigrants shouldn’t be afraid to report a crime, said Del. Wanika Fisher, D-Prince George’s, a sponsor of the bill.

“When one community doesn’t feel safe with law enforcement and participating, it affects everyone,” Fisher said. 

Three Maryland jurisdictions participate in the 287(g) program: Cecil, Frederick and Harford counties. 

These jurisdictions argue that this bill poses a threat to public safety. Asking for someone’s location of birth is a routine part of processing information, Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler, R, said. 

“Part of public safety is identifying who you’re bringing into custody and whether other jurisdictions want them and what kind of criminal history they have,” Gahler said in an interview with Capital News Service. 

There’s no reason law enforcement officers shouldn’t be allowed to notify ICE if someone is here illegally, Gahler said.

People call it the Trust Act for a reason, said Cathryn Paul, research and policy analyst at CASA, the largest immigrant services and advocacy organization in Maryland. Immigrant families do not trust the police or the government, Paul said. 

The 287(g) program allows local officers to turn into ICE agents when they have minimal training, almost no oversight or accountability and many aren’t bilingual, Paul said.

“The police should not be playing ICE. The police should not be acting as ICE agents in any way,” Paul said.  

Policies like this will lower crime rates because it establishes trust and encourages immigrants to report crimes, Paul said. Immigrants have been keeping the country afloat during the pandemic; lawmakers must take action to support them, Paul said.  

However, Richard Jurgena, a retired Navy officer and resident of Darnestown, Maryland, said in his written testimony last year that the Constitution is the law of the land. He pointed to the bill’s fiscal and policy note under “Current Law” that begins with “While immigration is controlled by federal law,” to prove that immigration cannot be separated from the federal government. 

The law is the law, those opposed to the bill have said. 

Much of the testimony, however, argued that undocumented immigrants are anything but criminals. 

Maria Perez was placed in handcuffs in Prince George’s County in May of 2018 after she was stopped for speeding by police and handed over to an immigration agent, treated like she had committed a criminal act, she said. She testified in Spanish, with her written testimony in English on the screen. 

On March 18, Perez has a court date, which will determine whether she can stay in this country with her children or would be deported back to El Salvador where she fled from 16 years ago. 

A 15-year-old boy, Yovani Isaula, testified that his mother, Nora Argueta, was deported after a Maryland state trooper detained her on the highway when her car broke down on a highway in Baltimore in January of 2019.

Isaula was confused about what was happening because he thought police officers were there to help, but rather they detained his mother and he had to learn how to take care of himself, he said. 

“We need to repair the relationship between the community and the police because so many deportations caused by the police have caused us to lose our trust in them,” Perez said.