Stage One of Governor Larry Hogan’s Roadmap to Recovery took effect on May 15, moving Maryland residents from a Stay at Home order to a Safer at Home public health advisory. Under Stage One, retail, manufacturing, houses of worship and some personal services are permitted to reopen with strict limitations.

“I want to assure every Marylander who may feel uneasy, and anyone who is concerned that we are moving either too quickly or too slowly, that each and every decision we make is both fact-based and science based and made only after extensive consultation with our expert Coronavirus Recovery Team,” Hogan said.

As of May 21, the decision to partially reopen under Stage One was still in effect for Anne Arundel and Howard Counties, with salons and barbershops operating by appointment only and allowing only one customer on the premises at a time. Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, which registered higher numbers of cases, had decided to continue under stay-at-home restrictions.

Under executive orders issued by Howard County Executive Calvin Ball and Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, specific retail businesses that principally sell goods were permitted to reopen but were restricted to curbside pickup or delivery service. Religious services were permitted with 10 or fewer people in attendance, preferably outdoors.

Liability Questions

Across the state, trade associations and business organizations expressed gratitude that some of their members struggling to stay afloat could begin returning to business.

While grateful that some business operations could resume, Christine Ross, president and CEO of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, expressed concern over different jurisdictions operating under different rules simultaneously.

“This patchwork approach could prove detrimental for employers and their employees who are already in the midst of navigating a difficult and evolving crisis,” she said.

As companies begin to reopen, many are concerned about employer liability and facilities, said Leonardo McClarty, president and CEO of the Howard County Chamber.

“They’re wondering how to demonstrate that they’ve taken full precautions to protect themselves, their customers and vendors,” he said. “Another concern is the added cost to retrofit businesses [for safety enhancements] and purchasing personal protective equipment. Many small businesses don’t have the money to do these things.”

Chamber members appreciate the measured approach that the governor and the counties are taking, “but while some of the 50 percent capacity and other customer limitations are good for health, it does not help the business revenue wise,” McClarty said. “There have

also been concerns that some retailers, especially big box or national names, have gotten preferential treatment.”

Guidance Needed

Kristi Simon, president of the Central Maryland Chamber (CMC), said some of her organization’s members are seeking guidance on how to handle employees who are refusing to come back to work for health concerns.

“They want to know if there will be government support to help them afford the new safety mandates that have been put into place,” she said. “With state and county guidance rolling out quickly, it’s a rush to find answers, and the solutions don’t work for all businesses.”

Unfortunately, Simon said, several CMC members made the difficult decision to close their doors.

“We’ve also continued adding members over the past few months, who need our services and assistance and look to us as a resource. Entrepreneurs are starting new businesses or transitioning operations to focus on something vastly different than what they were working on before the pandemic,” she said. “Most are just trying to hold off on making difficult decisions until they have a plan … or receive funding to keep them afloat.”

Capacity Issues

At the Laurel Board of Trade, Jim Cross, who serves as chairman, said restaurant business is down 50 to 60 percent in the city despite takeout service, and even the city’s Lowe’s hardware store has seen a 60 percent reduction in business.

“They don’t even have any lumber on the shelves,” Cross said. “People are still doing home repairs and tradesmen are active, but things are really tight. Everybody is hanging on by their fingernails, hoping we’ll get something moving again soon.”

The Board of Trade itself was unable to host its annual Main Street Festival in May, its primary source of funds aside from membership dues, and is uncertain if the event will be able take place in September or October before the weather prevents it.

“We’re a 501(c)6 organization,” Cross said. “Non-profits can apply to get loans, but we’re not able to at this point.”

Maureen Rogers, the Board of Trade’s administrative assistant, is also the artistic director for the Laurel Mills Playhouse.

“We don’t think we’re going to be able to open even in the next couple of recovery phases,” she said. “The arts are going to take a big hit, and even if we’re operating at 25 percent capacity for social spacing requirements, that’s not enough.”

The more drastic capacity restrictions for hair salons and barbershops don’t make sense from a functional standpoint either, said Simon.

“For a large salon, having one client with one technician doesn’t support the overhead to keep the lights on with the rest of the staff out of work,” she said. “If it’s possible for businesses to operate using proper safety techniques and recommended distancing, they should have the opportunity to do so.”

By George Berkheimer | Senior Writer | The Business Monthly