2020 | Government

UPDATED: Elrich chides Trump for leaving Walter Reed with COVID-19 to wave to supporters

County unsure if it can require president, with infectious disease, to stay in hospital

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Part of Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich's tweet chiding President Donald Trump

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich late Sunday night criticized President Donald Trump for briefly departing Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he is being treated for COVID-19, to ride around and wave at supporters gathered outside.

Trump, 74, announced early Friday morning that he had tested positive for COVID-19, and was admitted to Bethesda’s Walter Reed National Military Medical Center later that day. On Sunday evening, Trump briefly left the hospital in a motorcade to wave to supporters lining Rockville Pike.

Critics blasted Trump, saying he exposed people around him, including his driver and Secret Service agents, to COVID-19 for a frivolous reason.

In his statement posted to Twitter late Sunday night, Elrich wrote: “We take COVID-19 seriously” in Montgomery County and “expect the same from our guests.”

“Please think about those caring for you and stay in the hospital until you can return to the White House,” Elrich wrote.

Montgomery County has consistently been slower to reopen businesses and amenities than other jurisdictions as it fights the spread of COVID-19. The pace has often been met with backlash, but officials have said they believe Montgomery County has avoided many cases and deaths by its method.

Conversely, Trump has routinely downplayed the severity of the coronavirus, once saying, “It affects virtually nobody.” He was often seen in public without a face covering prior to his diagnosis. During last week’s presidential debate, he said he wears a mask when he thinks he needs to.

Since Trump arrived at Walter Reed on Friday, a near-constant crowd of supporters — and some critics — has been stationed outside the hospital. Many have not been wearing masks, despite a local order mandating their use in public spaces when it is difficult to social distance.

The crowd, at times, has grown beyond 50 people, the Montgomery County limit on the size of gatherings.

Montgomery County police have been on the scene since Trump arrived, including Sunday night as part of Rockville Pike was closed during the president’s ride.

Mary Anderson, a spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said in an interview Monday morning that, to her knowledge, there have not been conversations between the health department and county executive’s office about more strictly enforcing the county’s mask mandate or crowd size limitations outside Walter Reed.

She said that county officials believe Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles has the authority to require Trump, who has an infectious disease, to remain in the hospital until he is discharged, to avoid more impromptu drive-bys.

Anderson would not say if Gayles intends to use such authority, because there are several legal questions, including whether he has jurisdiction over Walter Reed, which is a federal property.

Typically, that order would come from the state level, Anderson said.

Charlie Gischlar, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health, wrote in an email that “local health departments and law enforcement agencies are responsible for compliance to public health orders,” and referred questions to county officials. 

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, wrote to Bethesda Beat on Twitter  that “it’s important to keep in mind that Walter Reed is federal property.” He did not immediately respond to a follow-up question. 

Ricci added that the state does not have size restrictions on outdoor gatherings.

Montgomery County police Second District Commander Sean Gagen, whose district includes Bethesda, wrote in a text message to Bethesda Beat that police “do not have any authority about what goes on inside the gates of Walter Reed” because it is federal property.

On Saturday, Trump’s first full day at Walter Reed, dozens of supporters, many of whom were not from Montgomery County or wearing masks, lined Rockville Pike outside the hospital in a show of support for the president.

Sometimes, when a Trump critic infiltrated the crowd, there were tense arguments, but they were usually resolved quickly.

Montgomery County police on the scene said there had been a “few scuffles” throughout the day, but “nothing major.”

Most of the people outside the hospital on Saturday afternoon were peaceful and kept to themselves, cheering as cars drove by and honked to indicate support. Most were dressed in Trump gear and many waved Trump flags.

A handful of supporters stood along Rockville Pike on Monday morning, along with journalists who have congregated there.

Gagen said there were no incidents over the weekend among the crowds gathered at Walter Reed related to crowd size or people not wearing masks. He wrote that no arrests had been made as of 10 a.m. Monday, but that officers “de-escalated” a few incidents.

Staff writer Dan Schere contributed to this story.