In Washington’s shadow, coronavirus relief comes from elsewhere


Proximity to Washington has not helped Maryland during the coronavirus crisis.

Maryland's state flag

As the United States’ official death toll for the coronavirus pandemic crested towards 50,000 in late April, President Donald Trump was declaring victory.

“We’ve done a great job,” he said from the White House during one of his daily press conferences, which often stretched up to two hours and included prolonged rants against the media. “If we didn’t take quick action, you could have lost many millions of people.”

During similar appearances, Trump touted the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a “game changer” for treating COVID-19, despite a lack of clinical evidence, and speculated about the benefits of injecting bleach into a patient’s body.

Yet just a few miles away, in Washington’s neighboring state of Maryland, another Republican was spreading a different message.

“I’m going to be very cautious,” said Maryland Governor Larry Hogan on the ABC program “This Week.” “While we have some encouraging numbers on hospitalizations and ICU, which are leveling off, we're still going up with respect to the number of cases and the number of deaths.”

While Trump was adamantly calling for states to lift restrictions on social gatherings and businesses, Hogan’s state was staying the course.

“We're not going to do anything that's going to put anybody in more danger,” he said.

The competing narrative was typical for Hogan, who has emerged as one of the most visible and widely praised counterpoints to Trump within the Republican Party. The attention has bolstered his image, which was already on the rise due to his position as head of the National Governors Association and early speculation about a possible primary challenge against Trump. He ruled out challenging Trump last year.

The situation in Maryland offers a stirring reminder of the central role that local and state leaders are playing in the coronavirus crisis. Even as Trump defies public health leaders by calling for the national economy to “reopen,” he has little authority to actually make it happen — even just a few miles away. Instead, most decisions regarding lockdowns and business closures have been taken by state or local leaders who have often broke with the president.

“There are some states that have done a really amazing job and it is not because of the federal government’s support — it’s in spite of it,” said Sandra Quinn, a professor and chair of the family science department at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health.

“By and large Governor Hogan has been out front with this and I think has handled this quite well.”

The Washington area has emerged as a hot spot for coronavirus, and Hogan has become the de facto leader for the broader region, which includes his state as well as Washington, DC, and neighboring Virginia.

Millions of federal government employees, contractors, lobbyists and other associated workers live in Maryland, yet they have been almost entirely dependent on the state government to respond to coronavirus.

Instead of making himself the center of attention, Hogan has been praised for deferring to experts on major technical questions. The state’s closure of schools, transition to telework and other precautionary moves were swift but well communicated.   

“He acted early and he acted decisively, and I think most people across the political spectrum would give him credit for that,” said Josh Kurtz, a longtime Maryland political commentator and editor of the website Maryland Matters.

Nationally, Maryland was the second state to close schools across-the-board in mid-March. Later that month, in the run up to issuing a statewide stay-at-home order, Hogan reopened the state’s health insurance marketplace, making it possible for people without insurance to purchase it. The state also waived premiums for its children’s health program and for a program targeting people with disabilities.

Rather than wait for the federal government’s help to acquire needed coronavirus test kits, which have been in short supply nationally, Hogan in April purchased 500,000 tests from South Korea. He reportedly leaned on his wife, a Korean immigrant, to make the purchase.

“The fact of the matter is he comes across as very straightforward, not particularly ideological or partisan,” said Stuart Rothenberg, a veteran political analyst.

“He’s benefitting from an obvious contrast with the president of the United States, who comes across as petty and personal and narcissistic.”

Yet even in a state where leaders have been praised for their performance, the virus has been pervasive. And it does not affect all residents equally.

African-Americans account for 31 percent of Maryland’s population but make up an outsized 45 percent of coronavirus cases and 44 percent of the confirmed deaths, according to available data as of late April.

The highest numbers have been in Prince George’s County, which comprises a semi-circle surrounding the eastern flank of Washington, DC. It has the state’s largest non-white population and has seen the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases.

The reasons for those discrepancies are myriad, said Todd Turner, the chairman of the county council. But they stem from structural inequalities about access to health care and predispositions to ailments more prevalent among low-income workers. They also reflect the disparity about which workers are able to work from home and which aren’t.

Disproportionately, people who get sick “are the bus drivers. They are working at grocery stores and pharmacies,” Turner said. “All those essential businesses that are out there, our residents are the heart and soul of those kinds of businesses and activities.”

Even for people who aren’t getting sick, the economic toll of the pandemic has been severe and is likely to be long-lasting.

Silvia Alexiev, 42, owns a dance studio with locations on both sides of the Washington-Maryland border. Due to the lockdown she has had to close the studios and instead offer dance instruction online, although the incoming money is hardly a replacement for what’s being lost.

“We cannot even come close to covering our bills because we have $20,000 of rent at both of our locations that we still have to pay,” she said.

“It’s financially very difficult because right now we’re spending money that we cannot make.”

Ariel Horn, 24, is a freelance writer and editor who usually supplements her income with a hodge-podge of side gigs babysitting and tutoring. Much of her work has disappeared due to the pandemic, but she has adjusted by fetching groceries and running errands for people reluctant to leave their homes during the crisis.

She advertises on Facebook and charges a sliding scale fee that starts at $20 for fewer than $100 worth of groceries.

“I'm always extremely careful when I leave the house,” she said via email. “I have hand sanitizer on hand and always make sure to wear a mask and put on a clean pair of gloves before shopping for others.”

Horn maintains an optimistic outlook despite the dire economic conditions. But she worries about the pandemic’s long-term economic effects, which threaten to derail her budding career before it can get off the ground.

“I am definitely concerned what my prospects for work will look at after the pandemic,” she said. “Right before it started, I was looking for full-time work as a writer, editor or a social media coordinator. While I still plan on continuing to apply for these positions when the pandemic is over, I know the job market will be a little tricky to wade through.”