RIDGE, Md. — When Donnie Tennyson poured his morning cup of coffee Saturday, he wasn’t expecting a text from his store’s manager saying that a pair of St. Mary’s County police officers wanted to see him. As he frantically grabs his coat and makes the 10-minute drive down Route 235 to his business, Ridge Hardware, he was shocked to find out he was about to be issued an order to close his business by the St. Mary’s County Health Department(SMCHD).
“While I was on the way, [my manager] sent me a text saying they are here to close us,” Tennyson said. “I walked into the store and ask the two deputies to come outside so I could distance from them without a mask… Then they handed me the order.”
The owner described a seemingly extensive history with SMCHD since the pandemic began back in March. After several complaints from customers had been made to SMCHD, the government entity made seven visits to the hardware store just over the summer months, to ensure all regulations from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s[R] executive orders were being followed.
Most complaints were in regards to employees who were not wearing face masks, but Tennyson said he was informed by some employees that they have medical conditions that prevent them from wearing masks for prolonged periods. This issue was supposedly addressed by the health department back in August when Tennyson was told that installing a large piece of plexiglass at the register and keeping those employees behind it would mitigate this problem.
After a few months passed with little word from SMCHD, Tennyson believed that he had sufficiently resolved every issue that had previously been brought to his attention. Until December began.
“[Dec. 1, SMCHD] came in… they said ‘hey, we’ve had some complaints, we’re here to do an inspection.’ On Wednesday morning, the sheriff’s deputy comes in and serves me an Order to Comply,” Tennyson explained. “[That order stated] you have three days to remedy the situation that we have pointed out is wrong and we’ll come back for re-inspection.”
Tennyson would then point out two more instances over the next three days where he would have interactions with health department personnel, all seemingly over issues he thought were previously resolved. This included meeting the four criteria that Gov. Hogan’s executive orders require from retail establishments such as posting signage about customers wearing masks, providing sanitizing equipment, and marking social distancing spaces.
One instance he described involved an SMCHD employee who allegedly refused to talk to Tennyson before speeding away from the store premises.
On Dec. 12, Tennyson would officially be served an “Order to Close” his store by St. Mary’s County Health Officer Dr. Meena Brewster, saying “Ridge Hardware is operating in a manner that poses an unreasonable risk of exacerbating the spread of COVID-19, and is hereby deemed an unsafe facility.”
“I guess I would be considered a criminal,” Tennyson joked. “I’m a law-abiding citizen trying to employ, you know, five people and support their families.”
Failure to comply with the order could result in up to one year in jail, and up to a $5,000 fine. The order stays in effect until the state of emergency has been terminated or until notified by the county health officer that the unsafe facility is allowed to continue operations under modified conditions.
While he says that he feels like he is being “targeted” and that he feels like small businesses are being more heavily hammered by government regulation, Tennyson said he is willing to fight for what he thinks is right.
“My employees know this. My customers know this, that I am pushing back and standing up for my rights,” Tennyson said. “I’ve told people I will reopen the doors if they ever closed them. I would take the chance of going to jail.”
A rally has been planned in front of Ridge Hardware today at 11 a.m., in support of Tennyson and his business.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article will be updated once we receive a response from the St. Mary’s County Health Department.