On the heels of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan allowing some outdoor recreational activities to resume last week, Harford Executive Barry Glassman is hoping small businesses are next — perhaps as soon as this Friday, at least in his county.
“I’m hopeful that [May 15] is a good step for at least personal services and some small businesses, that we begin to take those first reopening steps,” Glassman said in an interview with The Aegis last week.
Glassman recognizes he can’t do that without approval from the governor. In making his case, he notes that Harford is on the lower end of confirmed coronavirus cases per capita among the state’s most populous counties.
As of Monday, the state Department of Health was reporting 605 confirmed cases and 25 confirmed or probable deaths related to COVID-19 among Harford’s roughly 255,000-plus residents. Glassman noted nearly half of the fatalities and almost a third of total cases were tied to a pair of nursing homes.
County leaders have been regularly participating in conference calls with the governor since the coronavirus pandemic took hold in Maryland. Glassman, who is also the immediate past president of the Maryland Association of Counties, said he and other county executives and commissioners get an opportunity to ask questions and bring up matters they think need to be discussed and resolved.
Still, Glassman was among seven county executives and Baltimore’s mayor who signed a letter dated April 29 asking to be included in reopening discussions with Hogan.
Those leaders, including Glassman, said they were caught off guard when the governor announced last week that beaches and parks would reopen, and golf and recreational boating were again permitted in less than 24 hours.
“Yeah that’s true,” he said. “We heard it when everyone else heard it.”
When it comes to reopening businesses, Glassman emphasized the need for local leaders to be involved in the decision-making.
“I think counties are the closest to their businesses and we actually have to carry out many of the executive orders on a local level,” Glassman said. “So it doesn’t hurt to get us in the loop a little earlier.”
Glassman said he’s been pushing during the conference calls with Hogan “to get our small businesses open by mid-May at the latest. Some of the other counties feel the same way, some feel differently. But we would like to be in the discussion.”
About 90% of the calls Glassman receives these days are from small business owners who are beginning to struggle and want to reopen to some degree, he said.
A majority are smaller retail establishments frustrated about losing business while big box stores are allowed to stay open. He gave the example of a carpet and flooring store forced to closed while Home Depot routinely has packed parking lots and a steady flow of customers.
Glassman said beauty salons, barbers and other service-based businesses have also been contacting him about when they might be able to reopen.
He emphasized that business would be expected to operate differently than they did prior to the pandemic.
“They realize, I think everyone realizes, that the new normal, even when they open, is going to be social distancing and following all the CDC guidelines as far as face masks and all the protections for employees and customers that they can provide,” Glassman said. “I think everyone wants to do that, but there is an urgency for those small businesses to get back open.”
And Glassman is hoping to help some small businesses make those adjustments by using some of the funding Harford County is set to receive through the federal CARES Act.
Harford is due approximately $44.6 million in federal funds. Half of that is for reimbursement to local governments and the health department to cover expenses like personal protective equipment for first responders and other health-related costs due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The county plans to use the remaining $22.3 million to offer business support grants to help with reopening.
“Meaning they can buy and get installed that Plexiglas at the cashier’s [station], signs, cleaning equipment, PPE — we want to provide some grants that actually provide help and cover costs for those small businesses as they start to open back up,” Glassman said. “That’s going to be an additional expense for them and it comes at a bad time, when they probably do not have the money or they’ll have to borrow money to try to get those safety devices and precautions in place.”
CARES Act funding had been directly distributed to jurisdictions with 500,000 or more residents. In Maryland, that meant Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. The 18 other counties — including Harford — had to appeal to the governor to receive their funds or settle for reimbursement, Glassman explained.
With the help of MACo, they were able to work with Hogan’s budget secretary David Brinkley to get that federal funding released to medium- and small-sized counties without having to front the money then seek reimbursement, he said.
Harford County has not yet received any CARES Act funding from the state as of Monday, said Cindy Mumby, the county’s Director of Governmental and Community Relations. The state is setting up the process for receiving the funds, she said.
Guidelines and an application form for the small business grants are being developed by Harford’s Department of Economic Development, and Mumby said the applications will likely be posted online by next Monday. Some sort of help line or email address will also be established to assist business owners in filling out the forms.
“The idea is we want to help them fill it out right the first time,” Mumby said.
Applications will be able to be submitted the Tuesday after Memorial Day, she said. Grants through the county will serve as a safety net for businesses that were not able to receive state or federal COVID-19 related funding.
“The county executive’s intent is to make the process flexible for businesses and let them use the money where they feel they need it most,” she said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Glassman’s role with the Maryland Association of Counties. The article has been updated to reflect accurate information.