A caravan of cars, truck and motorcycles swarmed the streets of Annapolis, Maryland, on Saturday demanding an end to coronavirus-related restrictions in Maryland, while a group of the state's Republican politicians encouraged Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, to reopen the rural areas they represent first, even if the harder-hit urban centers need to remain shut down to prevent the spread of the virus.
The protest and the push from politicians come as groups around the nation have become more vocal in recent days about prodding state governors to reopen for business, even as the number of people testing positive for covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, increases.
The region recorded 73 additional deaths as of Saturday morning, and the number of fatalities is now nearing 900. The number of infections has surpassed 23,000.
Health officials added 40 people to the death toll in Maryland on Saturday morning, 28 victims in Virginia and five in the District of Columbia. The 73 total fatalities for the region are roughly the same as the two previous days, when 67 and 68 deaths were recorded. Virginia's death total rose for the third straight day, while Maryland has reported about 40 deaths daily since shifting to reporting probable and confirmed fatalities this week.
State and city officials have said they expect the peak to arrive and then decline in the coming weeks, a key to reopening some businesses and services.
For more than two hours on Saturday, however, drivers honked their horns and crowded the streets of the state capital to let it be known that they want the stay-at-home orders to end sooner rather than later. They waved American flags while holding up signs out of their car windows: "Let me work so I can feed my kids." "Quarantines are for sick people." "We are all essential." "I need a haircut."
Traffic along Main Street in downtown Annapolis was at a standstill as dozens of cars waited to drive around Church Circle for the protest, organized by a group called Reopen Maryland. More than 1,275 people signed an online petition demanding that Hogan immediately reopen the state's business, educational and religious institutions.
Caryn Abbott, a 58-year-old registered nurse from Pocomoke City, Maryland, and a spokeswoman for the group, said she helped organize the protest to urge the governor reopen businesses, schools and churches by May 1 - while still following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and protecting the vulnerable from contracting the virus.
Others who protested didn't want to wait that long; they urged the governor to lift the restrictions immediately.
"I don't think it's right to limit the rights of the many to protect the few," said Rob Dahl, a 37-year-old from Baltimore who was holding a sign that said "Legalize hugs."
"This has been a planned-demic all along," another man shouted from a megaphone through his car window. "For forced vaccinations . . . I'm not wearing masks to show my submission."
Greg, a 49-year-old contractor for Pasadena, Maryland, who declined to give his last name, stood on the sidewalk holding a sign that read "Let my people go."
"I fought for my freedom, I'm not going to give it up now," added the Army veteran. "I'd rather die than give up my freedoms." He said he's not afraid of contracting the virus.
On the opposite side of the circle stood the sole counter-protestor of the day: Amy Windham, a health researcher from Annapolis, wearing a mask and a rainbow "Annapolis Pride" T-shirt and holding a sign that read "Go home."
She showed up to protest "this craziness," she said, motioning to the drivers honking their horns in the circle. She worried about her friends and family who are health-care workers.
"Why don't you stay home?" a man walking by asked her.
Reopen Maryland joins a number of groups that have sprung up at state capitals in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Minnesota, and also outside the capitol in Richmond, Virginia, on Thursday. President Trump on Friday voiced his support for the protesters, as he attempts to push state governors to reopen for business.
On Friday, Hogan said he, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, and District Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, agreed it would be premature to lift any restrictions now. "We're all in some part of a phase of talking about the gradual reopening but not able to start that right yet. And we all are in agreement that we want to do that in a way that's cooperative," Hogan said.
The Maryland House Minority Caucus sent a letter to the governor on Saturday letting him know that gradual may not work for everyone in the state.
"While a one-size-fits-all approach may work in some instances," the Republican members wrote, "the industries, geography, and clearly infection and hospitalization rates differ greatly in the various areas of the state; particularly the westernmost counties, the Eastern Shore, and Southern Maryland . . . We believe moving forward in a cautious and gradual approach in regional areas would strike the right balance between public health and economic well-being."
The governor aggressively implemented social distancing rules to slow the spread of the virus last month. That meant closing businesses deemed nonessential. Since then, more than 295,000 people filed for unemployment in just four weeks, smashing all previous records.
Hogan plans to release his "Maryland Strong Roadmap to Recovery" late next week, but said it is premature to implement any reopening plans while the state's daily death toll, hospitalizations and ICU bed use continue to rise. He said Friday he would not reopen anything until each of those numbers have declined for 14 consecutive days. Additionally, Hogan said the state would not reopen until it more than triples daily testing capacity, has hospital systems fully ramped up, acquired millions of pieces of personal protective equipment and hired an army of contact tracing workers who can track - and isolate - any newly infected patients.
Elsewhere in Maryland, Calvert County is asking residents to limit shopping trips to every five days and to go on certain days according to their last names. The measures, which are voluntary, are designed to reduce chronic overcrowding in grocery and convenience stores, according to the county's health department.
Customers whose last names start with A-C should shop on dates ending with 0 and 5, D-G on dates ending with 1 and 6, H-L on dates ending in 2 and 7, M-R on dates ending in 3 and 8, and S-Z on dates ending in 4 and 9. But the county's board of commissioners reminded that the designated days were a suggestion, not a requirement.
At some groceries in the Washington suburbs, all limits were off as huge crowds appeared Friday afternoon at a number of MegaMart Latino supermarkets, after the stores advertised free necessities for people struggling financially. Photos and footage from TV news helicopters showed lines wrapping around stores in Takoma Park, Riverdale and Arlington, including customers who weren't socially distancing, and traffic backing up into nearby streets.
Gerson Lopez, general manager of the Takoma Park store, said MegaMart gave out 4,900 bags of food and $30 store vouchers at its four Prince George's locations. He said he didn't have the figures for other locations, including in Montgomery County and Northern Virginia.
Customers were given vouchers after the bags of food ran out, he said. The bags contained rice, beans, cornmeal, oil, sugar, salt and other staples.
"The community gives us a lot," Lopez said, "so we have to give back."
But Lopez said he and other store officials were surprised and overwhelmed by the response. While the stores have private security and some police for help, he said, the giveaways had to be suspended because many people were standing too close to each other.
Lopez said he called in additional security to the Takoma Park location Saturday morning when he discovered about 100 people waiting in line before the store opened. All of them had vouchers from the day before.
"This means people are hungry and need food," Lopez said. "We're looking for better ways to help people in the future."
In Baltimore, the city reported the first death of a city employee attributable to covid-19. Michael Baptist, a contract services specialist in human resources at the Baltimore Police Department, passed Friday evening. He had begun his career as an officer, retired as a sergeant and later rejoined the department as a civilian investigator, the city said. His age was not released.
But the virus was not attacking only the elderly. In Chesterfield County, Virginia, outside Richmond, authorities reported that 25 youths held at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center had tested positive for the coronavirus.
The facility has about 280 residents, from 11 to 20 years old. The Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice said 21 of the 25 who tested positive had exhibited no outward symptoms, and 13 had already been released from medical isolation.
And in the District, four youths in the custody of District's Department of Youth and Rehabilitation Services tested positive for covid-19 this week at two of the agency's housing facilities, officials said. Two of the youths are housed at the New Beginnings Youth Development Center in Laurel, while the other two juveniles are located at the Youth Services Center in Northeast Washington, according to a statement from agency director Clinton Lacey.
The latest confirmed cases raise the total number of positive cases to eight for juveniles in agency custody, officials said. The agency placed those youths into isolation at the respective facilities, the statement said.
The Washington Post’s Fenit Nirappil and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.