ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY, MD — County executive candidate Herb McMillan alleged that the Anne Arundel mask mandate violates state law.
The Republican thinks the county's top doctor acted outside his legal authority by reimposing a face covering requirement after lawmakers rejected the idea. He predicted the issue will end up in court.
"Whether one believes a mask mandate is an appropriate policy or not is irrelevant," McMillan said Monday in an Eye On Annapolis Opinion-Editorial. "The issue is their failure to respect and accept the democratic process."
Overriding Mask Mandate Vote
Democratic County Executive Steuart 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 motion fell one vote short. All four Democrats supported a continuation, and the three Republicans opposed it.
County Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman 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.
"The strength of America has always been in our respect for the Democratic process," McMillan said in the opinion piece, which he shared with Patch on Friday. "Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman and Health Officer Nilesh Kalyanaraman have betrayed that trust."
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.
McMillan thinks 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 McMillan believes the law does not protect Kalyanaraman's mask mandate.
"Kalyanaraman is not acting legally, and Pittman is acting like a dictator again," McMillan said.
Potential Lawsuit Brewing
McMillan compared the mask mandate to a lawsuit that thwarted Pittman's indoor dining ban during last winter's COVID-19 surge.
Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge William Mulford II temporarily blocked those orders. Mulford ruled that the restrictions put an unfair burden on eateries compared to other establishments.
Although dining in a restaurant could expose a customer to the coronavirus, the judge argued that other businesses have similar risks. He said Pittman's mandates "were applied in an inconsistent manner" and "relied on a selective interpretation of the data" that hurt the foodservice industry.
The county eventually settled the case out of court. That let eateries stay open at limited capacities until Pittman lifted restrictions last year.
"They’re going down the same dictatorial path, and likely headed to court again," McMillan said.
Responding To Critics
The county executive said he "won't shrink away from the debate over the obligation of government to protect its people." Pittman acknowledged, however, that "keyboard activists from the far right" believe his coronavirus regulations will cost him the next election. That's a risk the county executive takes willingly.
"What the hell is going on with the Anne Arundel County Republican Party?" Pittman said. "This county’s Republican Party used to represent fiscal conservatism and a healthy disdain for excessive regulation. It has recently become so ferociously opposed to delivering the basic functions of local government that its leaders are no longer capable of managing the public institutions that they malign."
McMillan clarified that he is not against face coverings. He just disagrees with mask mandates. Residents should be allowed to make their own health choices, the candidate said.
"It is when issues are contentious and the stakes are high that the democratic process is most important," McMillan said. "That’s why, as a Naval Academy Midshipman and Navy officer, I took an oath to defend the constitution, and our democratic process. It’s why I did the same as a councilman, and as a state delegate; and it’s why I’ll honor the same oath as your county executive. Because it’s your democracy; because it’s your government; and because it’s your freedom."
Read Patch's latest pandemic update to find a coronavirus test, book a COVID-19 vaccine, schedule a booster shot or see local health metrics.
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.