By BRIAN WITTE, Associated Press
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Maryland lawmakers expanded an emergency measure to address the new coronavirus on Saturday, as they focused on priority legislation.
The bill would enable the governor to take additional actions to help state residents affected by the virus. It includes provisions to pay for virus testing and to prevent price gouging for critical items like food, water, medical supplies and cleaning products.
University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health set up their HealthLink Medical Mobile van parking lot near the emergency department Friday, March 13, 2020, in Bel Air, Md., to collect specimens from people who are medium to high risk for COVID-19. Patients with lab orders and an appointment remain in their car as health care workers swab their nose and throat. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun via AP)
It also would prohibit employers from firing employees who need to be quarantined or isolated. The measure is in addition to other actions already taken by Gov. Larry Hogan, who has declared a state of emergency in Maryland. As of Saturday morning, the Maryland Department of Health had reported 26 confirmed cases of COVID-19. No deaths have been reported in the state.
Both the House and Senate took up their versions of the legislation and added provisions.
One change would enable state hospitals to adjust working hours, so employees could work three, 12-hour shifts, instead of five, eight-hour days.
Another change would allow the state’s labor department to identify who can get unemployment benefits. It would extend benefits to people who are ill longer than sick leave allows or for people who are caring for a family member. It also would enable someone to receive benefits if their employer shut down.
“This situation is evolving, and we may need to add to the provisions of this bill in the time that where here just to make sure that we’re covering everyone,” said Del. Bonnie Cullison, a Montgomery County Democrat.
Lawmakers could vote on the legislation this weekend. Both chambers were set to return on Sunday, an unusual occurrence, even as they enter the last weeks of their annual 90-day session.
Meanwhile, the Senate changed a major education measure that is estimated to cost billions of dollars over the next decade to reflect concerns about how the virus could affect the economy.
Under the amendment, if revenue estimates in December are more than 7.5% below revenue estimates made in March of that year, per pupil increases in major education aid required under the bill would be limited to the rate of inflation.
“There’s just been a lot of discomfort about how we come out of this financially,” said Sen. Nancy King, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the change.
The House, which already has passed the bill, would have to agree to the change.
The session is scheduled to end April 6, but lawmakers have been focusing on priority legislation in case they decide it’s necessary to adjourn early because of the virus.
“We have asked House and Senate leadership to prioritize legislation in their committees to the extent possible in order to finish critical bills in an expedited fashion,” House Speaker Adrienne Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson wrote legislators in an email Thursday.
While it’s not unusual for the General Assembly to convene on Saturdays in its final weeks of session, this session was different. The galleries where members of the public can watch the proceedings were empty, except for a security guard, because the State House has been closed to the public due to concerns about the virus. Lobbyists also were not allowed in the building.
Separately on Saturday, Hogan signed an executive order to expand child care access for critical personnel during a state of emergency in response to coronavirus while schools are closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The governor said he signed the order to ensure that child care services are available for providers of health care, emergency medical services and law enforcement.
One lawmaker ended the session in the House by reminding delegates to take precautions against the virus.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the speaker just wants to reinforce to everyone just to be respectful of everyone’s space and to make sure that you’re careful how you touch others during this infectious season,” said Del. Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat who is the House majority whip. “So, we just want to make sure everyone remains safe and germ free.”