October 1, 2020,

The Legislative Committee has prepared a Position Paper outlining the Chamber’s concerns about the implementation of COVID-19 restrictions by the County government.  The Chamber identified three specific issues: 1) there should be more focus on education about regulation, 2) flexible enforcement and 3) increased consideration about the impact each regulation has on business.

Issue

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted millions of lives, both physically and emotionally, and it continues to be a serious strain on the economy, nationally and right here in Anne Arundel County. We have all had to adjust and make sacrifices, and continue to do so, in order to adapt to these extraordinary times, but our local businesses and business owners, including restaurants, retailers, hospitality, travel, and entertainment, have been particularly hard hit.  This past spring, many businesses were forced to close due to government restrictions, thousands of employees were either laid off or furloughed, and many employers were forced to implement a work from home structure to keep their businesses running.

While it is certainly a priority for government at every level to promote public safety and work to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, some of the government restrictions have, no doubt, caused the national and local economies to experience unprecedented hardship and put employers and employees in a position of great uncertainty as to whether or not they will be able to meet their future financial obligations (i.e., payroll, rent, car payments, mortgages, tuition, medical expenses, etc.). Some were lucky enough to have received aide and relief from various federal, state, and local programs to help lessen their financial burdens, but these short-term programs have nearly exhausted their funds and Congress has yet to agree on additional funding options.

The development and implementation of current and future regulations concerning the operation of a business in Anne Arundel County by the local government is of great concern to the Chamber and its member businesses. The purpose of this Position Paper is to outline our concerns and provide several concrete suggestions to better balance public health safety measures with a sustainable level of economic activity.

Discussion

The Chamber understands the need to balance regulations and policies that, on the one hand, will combat COVID-19, and, on the other, allow for enough economic activity to continue to ensure the financial stability and well-being of employers and employees, as well as the continued generation and collection of tax revenue by our government.  There has been a patchwork of regulations from the federal, state and local governments to try and control the spread of the virus and protect the public.  It seems the overall philosophy has been to push final decision-making authority and implementation down to the local governments, which, in our case, is the Anne Arundel County Executive and its administration.

The Chamber recognizes and appreciates County Executive Pittman’s efforts to maximize the use of the CARES Act funds to help promote public health and provide much-needed resources to businesses throughout the County.  The Anne Arundel Economic Development Corporation should be commended for their extraordinary efforts to provide timely and accurate information to the business community while diligently working to implement several financial assistance programs.  However, the Chamber is concerned about the changing nature of Executive Orders and uneven enforcement for various industries. In particular, we are very concerned about the impact the restrictions have on small businesses, those with less than 10 employees, which make up the vast majority of all businesses in Anne Arundel County.

Governor Hogan has taken the lead in the “re-opening” efforts with his Roadmap to Recovery Plan.  His recent announcement to move into Stage Three was very welcome and he continued the philosophy of allowing local jurisdictions to make the final call about implementation. In early September 2020, it was the decision of the County Executive to NOT move forward into Stage Three due to the “numbers.”  The apparent disconnect between the County Executive and Governor, political friction aside, has brought to light several areas of concern about the interpretation of the “numbers,” which “numbers” are being used, the lack of outreach and communication to the business community, and the uneven and sometimes heavy-handed enforcement efforts of the County.

The Chamber’s Position

When talking about the coronavirus crisis, many elected officials have said, “we are all in this together.”  The Chamber supports this concept and urges the County government to continue its efforts to embrace this concept by increasing its focus on the burden and impact its COVID-19 regulations are having on Anne Arundel County businesses and constituents.  To help the County government do this, the Chamber would like to propose the following recommendations for current and future COVID-19-specific business regulations:

  1. More focus on education about regulations and consumer requirements.
    Scientific studies have demonstrated that the COVID-19 virus is spread via open air transmission. More masks, social distancing, and hand washing, all simple concepts, have been effective in slowing and containing the spread of COVID-19. In many cases, violations of County guidelines have been on the part of customers and not business operators.  It is unreasonable put the burden of enforcing these guidelines on businesses and employers who have no enforcement authority or mechanisms to act if and when customers do not follow said guidelines. Therefore, it is also not reasonable to penalize and cite the business for non-compliance, when, in fact, the true violators are the customers (in many instances).  This issue can be adequately addressed with additional and improved communication from the County outlining these guidelines and reminding citizens that they bear the burden of following them subject to citations and penalties.  It seems COVID-19 restrictions are going to be around for a while, so it is important to make sure the public is part of the solution and helps Anne Arundel County businesses survive by holding themselves accountable and following the County’s health and safety COVID-19 regulations.  The Shop Safe. Shop Local. marketing campaign that AAEDC has started is a good first step.
  2. One size does not fit all: flexible enforcement.

It is difficult for one single set of regulations to be effective in across all industries and in varying sized facilities.  Each business activity is different with varying amounts of employee and customer interaction.  Clearly, certain businesses have a higher degree of interaction with the public and require more social distancing and capacity requirements.  Rather than immediate violation notices from a County code enforcement official, there should be flexible warning process in place to allow those businesses with well-documented prevention plans the opportunity to cure any defects. In addition, there should be an expedited appeals process for violations that would allow a business to challenge any fines and/or avoid a potential, and unnecessarily burdensome, shut down.

  1. Increased consideration about impact on business.

Many businesses will need to adjust the way they utilize their respective facilities, which, in some instances, may not exactly comply with existing County regulations.  Enforcement officials and the County Council should be prepared to amend or create a moratorium or holiday from certain zoning regulations to allow existing, and otherwise compliant, business to regain some of the lost activity from the past few months.