ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY, MD — The Anne Arundel County mask mandate can continue as scheduled, a judge ruled Tuesday. The court previously denied a request to pause the face covering requirement while the case played out.
The judge's latest decision means the mask mandate remains valid through the end of the month unless there are any other court rulings.
"Thank you to all of our residents, our businesses, and our hospitals who spoke out in support of masking to protect their communities," County Executive Steuart Pittman said in a press release. "Thank you to all those who have been vaccinated and boosted. Your choices continue to save the lives of your loved ones and neighbors."
The Court Case
The news came after two business owners took Anne Arundel County officials to court over their face covering order. The entrepreneurs, James Zimmerer and Pasquale Carannante, filed the litigation on Jan. 14.
The duo first asked for a temporary restraining order on the mask mandate. This would have paused the face covering rule until the court heard all the arguments.
A judge declined that motion last Wednesday. That let the mandate continue until Tuesday's hearing.
In the most recent meeting, opponents sought a preliminary injunction to halt the face covering requirement outright. The judge did not grant that injunction, meaning the mask mandate can continue.
Zimmerer and Carannante listed the defendants as Pittman, Anne Arundel County and Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman.
The health officer was the main focus of the case.
Kalyanaraman reinstated the face covering requirement earlier this month after the County Council voted not to renew the health order. The complaint questioned whether state law grants Kalyanaraman that power.
The Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County heard the arguments. The case title was Pasquale Carannante, et al. vs. Steuart Pittman, Jr., et al. The case number was C-02-CV-22-000064.
Overriding Mask Mandate Vote
Pittman restored an indoor mask mandate and a state of civil emergency on New Year's Eve. Those executive orders expired on Jan. 7. Neither action restricted business capacities or limited social gatherings.
The County Council could have extended the face covering requirement and the state of emergency with five votes. The proposals fell one vote short. All four Democrats supported continuations, and the three Republicans opposed them.
The health officer stepped in about two hours after the vote and resumed the mask mandate. Kalyanaraman issued a public safety order requiring residents older than 2 to wear face coverings in indoor public spaces and outdoor areas where distancing is not possible. This declaration will last until Jan. 31 or until he lifts the ruling, whichever is sooner.
Kalyanaraman's face covering order came as the omicron variant of coronavirus overtook Maryland. This surge led medical centers to initiate their emergency plans, called crisis standards of care, as they exceeded their capacities.
The metrics have since started to improve.
The state's COVID-19 hospitalizations are dropping at the fastest rate in the country, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Monday. Hospitalizations have fallen by 1,101 since they peaked at 3,462 on Jan. 11. Maryland is one of eight states where coronavirus hospitalizations have declined over the last two weeks, the governor said.
This encouraging trend gives Kalyanaraman hope that he won't have to extend the face-covering requirement beyond the end of the month.
Debating Legality Of Mandate
Kalyanaraman, an appointed official, said Section 18-208 of the Maryland Code grants him the power to require masks. That law tasks health officers with protecting residents when they have "reason to believe that a disease that endangers public health exists within the county."
Health officials should then "report immediately to the appropriate county board of health; ... investigate the suspected disease; and act properly to prevent the spread of the disease." Similar duties exist "when a health officer is notified of an infectious or contagious disease within the county." In this case, officers must also give Maryland's secretary of health an update within 24 hours.
Opponents thought this law only applies to new diseases because it uses timely phrases like "report immediately," "is notified" and "within 24 hours." COVID-19 has been in the county for two years, so they believed the law did not protect Kalyanaraman's mask mandate.
The judge ruled against these challengers, however.
"I want to thank the Court for again recognizing Dr. Kalyanaraman’s authority to issue this order under his powers as our Health Officer," Pittman said. "I hope and anticipate the expiration of the order on January 31st, as it has accomplished what Dr. Kalyanaraman intended - flattening the curve of the omicron wave during a critical moment for our hospitals and healthcare workers."
Have a story idea? Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any pitches, tips or questions. Follow me on Twitter @JacobBaumgart and on Facebook @JacobBaumgartJournalist to stay up-to-date with the latest Anne Arundel County news.