Amid another surge in COVID-19 cases and as the economic crisis fueled by government inaction worsens, activists are demanding action to avoid evictions, water bill shutoffs and to extend unemployment relief amidst the great economic crisis since the Great Depression.
After weeks of declining COVID-19 cases, Maryland is experiencing rising hospitalization and positivity rates, especially among those 35 years of age and under.
The number of COVID-positive patients at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore doubled overnight from July 20 to July 21, according to two nurses who help treat patients recovering from the coronavirus at the hospital, which is helping lead the international response to the pandemic.
The hospital had to transfer non-COVID patients from one unit in order to accommodate the influx of new cases, the nurses said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press. “The hospital had a plan in place if there was a surge, but they really didn’t expect that until later in the year,” said one nurse.
The nurses said many of the new cases are low-wage essential workers, such as grocery store clerks or correctional officers, who are unable to work from home or socially distance. They also noted an uptick of cases from the Latinx community, who represent a disproportionate number of frontline workers.
“It’s not uncommon to get someone in their 20s or 30s, who’s never been hospitalized before, all of a sudden having difficulty breathing,” the nurse said.
A second nurse confirmed those details. “I can speak from personal experience that anyone who has recently tested positive is someone who is still going to work. Mostly they are servers at restaurants,” they said.
A contact tracer for the State of Maryland confirmed an uptick in cases. “I can verify the spike in young Hispanics. Our bilingual tracers are overwhelmed,” said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
On July 22, Baltimore City announced a mandatory mask order to go into effect July 24, and an end to indoor dining, which experts say spreads the coronavirus. Bars and restaurants in Ocean City, Maryland, a popular vacation spot where patrons were seen not wearing masks, have been forced to shutter after a surge in cases there.
While local governments are enacting some new restrictions and mandating mask use and social distancing, tens of thousands of Maryland residents could face eviction as the state’s eviction moratorium expires on July 25. A federal eviction moratorium in the CARES Act, which has prevented 12 million people from being evicted, expires at midnight on July 24. A survey by the American Apartment Owners Association found nearly 60% of landlords said their tenants are unable to pay rent because of the COVID-driven economic crisis.
Long-time housing activist Barbara Samuels tweeted, “As courts reopen next week, over 400,000 Maryland adults, 31% of renters, report they are behind on rent & face eviction. This is one of the highest rates in the country, on par w/ poorer states. We need #RentReliefNow”
Thus far, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Baltimore City Mayor Jack Young have rejected calls to extend the eviction moratorium. An estimated tens of thousands of renters in Baltimore will be unable to pay rent. 32% of U.S. households missed their July housing payments, CNBC reported.
Activists are rallying in Annapolis on July 24 and 25 to demand the state not allow evictions. Activists targeted Young’s home early on July 12 with a similar demand (Boston extended their moratorium until the end of 2020), and to increase funding to the city’s $13 million coronavirus rent relief program, which advocates say falls far short of what’s needed. The anonymous group behind the action said in a statement the funding could come from the $500 million police budget and the $103 million in federal disaster relief funds the city has received.
Activists also criticized Mayor Young for failing to implement key elements of the Water Accountability and Equity Act, which caps water bills based on income.
“For years, and even during this pandemic, renters have been routinely denied assistance with water bills,” said Zafar Shah, attorney at the Public Justice Center. “As of today, the denial of renters’ requests to discounts, repayment agreements, and billing dispute resolution is unambiguously illegal.”
“Despite being legally mandated, residents of Baltimore are still unable to get meaningful assistance with their water bills, and low-income Baltimoreans will not have their bills made more affordable,” Rianna Eckel, Senior Maryland Organizer for Food & Water Action said.
Baltimore’s City Council is considering protections for workers, especially those in sectors deep in a harsh economic recession, such as hospitality, hotels, or event venues shut down due to COVID-19. 98% of UNITE HERE’s 300,000 members have become unemployed due to lockdowns, and Local 7 in Baltimore is backing two measures that would protect the jobs of such workers.
Councilmember Kristerfer Burnett has sponsored two bills to aid workers affected by COVID-19: the Laid-Off Employees Right of Recall (20-0544) and COVID-19 Employee Retention (20-0543). The legislation would require hotel, event center, and commercial property owners to bring back the same employees they employed before the crisis hit when they reopen or restore operations. If the company changes ownership, the new owners would be required to retain current workers.
Billionaires have increased their wealth by 20%—$637 billion—during the pandemic. Meanwhile, over 1.6 million people have signed a MoveOn petition urging the federal government to extend the $600 weekly federal unemployment payments that are set to expire at the end of July until Dec. 31, 2020. Republicans are proposing to reduce the weekly payments to $100.
The only safe place is at home, but for the 1 in 5 renters, or 13.8 million adults, who are behind on rent according to the Census Bureau, that soon may no longer be an option.
“The pandemic is certainly not over,” the nurse said. ”If the government is able to help people stay at home or work from home, they should be doing everything possible.”
It remains to be seen if Maryland’s leaders will extend economic protections for workers and renters affected by the pandemic.