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‘The longer this goes on, the harder it is.’ Howard County small businesses lean on federal aid, but worry about fate

The employees of the Thirty Hair salon in Columbia pose with masks on.
The employees of the Thirty Hair salon in Columbia pose with masks on.(HANDOUT)

When Sarah McGee Mariman got an email Easter weekend confirming her hair salon received a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the federal government, she broke down in tears. Without that approval, she said her business could not survive.

Her salon has been closed since March 17 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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McGee Mariman, owner of the Thirty Hair salon in Columbia, received the funds on May 1 from the federal government initiative aimed to assist businesses in keeping their workforce employed. Since then, she has been mapping out her reopening plan.

She wanted to do it safely while bringing in as much revenue as possible for her 10 employees. Whenever the state and county gave the green light for businesses to start reopening, she would be ready to go.

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Per Gov. Larry Hogan’s order last week, Maryland entered phase one of reopening beginning at 5 p.m., Friday when the stay-at-home order was lifted. Hogan left leeway for counties and jurisdictions to reopen at their own pace based on the reach of the coronavirus.

McGee Mariman was elated and so were her employees, excited to get back to work. However, only 24 hours later, she said she wanted to scream and cry.

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball announced May 14 his framework for reopening the county’s economy, classifying which businesses could reopen based on the governor’s executive order. Thirty Hair could open but would only be able to serve one client via one hairdresser at a time.

“I worked my butt off to get us ready [to reopen] and we don’t even have a timeline [for a complete reopening from the county],” she said. “I’ve never worked as hard as I have for my business as I have these past eight weeks.”

As part of Howard’s initial reopening plan, Ball said some businesses would be allowed to reopen at 50% capacity and others wouldn’t. The closures of businesses deemed nonessential remain in place. Some of those allowed to reopen at 50% capacity include pet groomers, animal adoptions and car washes. Even retail businesses like bookstores, clothing and shoe stores, furniture stores, jewelers, and tobacco and vape shops are restricted to reopening with only curbside pickup or delivery in Howard.

Ball’s stricter regulation of activity has small business owners in the county concerned about their livelihoods, McGee Mariman included.

Thirty Hair has served the 2,000-plus clients in their rotation for the past five years via 10 employees, many of whom are single moms with kids, McGee Mariman said. Eight of her employees are also the breadwinners of their families.

“The longer this goes on, the harder it is,” she said.

During a news conference Friday morning, Ball did not provide a specific timeline for the county to reopen to the full extent of Hogan’s first phase, citing the county’s proximity to Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, the two hardest-hit counties in the state. Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks placed the county under a stay-at-home order until at least June 1. In Montgomery, County Executive Marc Elrich placed the county under a stay-at-home order indefinitely.

“While it is my desire to have every business open and thriving in Howard County, health and safety is a priority,” Ball said Friday. “We feel [Hogan’s] restrictions don’t go far enough.”

Howard County Council member David Yungmann was disappointed when he heard Ball’s announcement that Howard would not move forward with Hogan’s phase one of reopening. Yungmann sent Ball a letter on May 14 asking for clarification on the decision through specific data points.

“All the reasonings [Ball] shared for not reopening are unsubstantiated,” Yungmann said. “Everything I’m hearing from the state says we’re ready to be open.”

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As of Monday, there have been 1,416 COVID-19 cases in Howard County, with 42 deaths. Overall, there were 39,762 cases in Maryland, according to Worldometer, which is used as an official data source by Johns Hopkins University, with 2,023 deaths statewide.

Yungmann said he believes the county could be reopening more like Carroll County rather than Baltimore County. Carroll County has followed Hogan’s recommendations and entered phase one of reopening, lifting some business restrictions in place since mid-March, allowing retailers, barber shops and salons to open at limited capacity. Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said retail stores that have been closed can reopen for curbside pickup and delivery only, while religious institutions, barbershops, salons and shopping malls must remain closed.

“The reason why you do this in stages is so you can watch what happens and react,” Yungmann said. “If you have to go backwards, you have to go backwards. If you use [Ball’s] philosophy, you’re going to be the last one open.”

County Council member Christiana Mercer Rigby said her concerns are with the threat of surrounding jurisdictions with higher infection rates than Howard County.

“Most of Howard County’s neighboring jurisdictions have implemented similar measures to limit reopening, including Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties,” Rigby said. “I’m telling residents what I tell my own family: Please continue to listen to public health experts. You are safer at home, and this crisis is far from over.”

McGee Mariman said that, so far, her salon has lost $150,000 in revenue. Annually, it usually brings in just under $1 million, and this year that won’t be possible, she said. In a low-revenue month, the salon would bring in $70,000. Under the Howard County restrictions for hair salons, if Thirty Hair stays open for five weeks, working seven days a week, McGee Mariman said they would bring in about $21,000 in revenue.

“Everyone will not be satisfied with our decisions,” Ball said Friday. “For some, we are moving too quickly, and others not fast enough. It is unwise to reopen too fast.”

McGee Mariman is not alone in her concerns. Matt Best, who owns Ten Oaks Tavern in Glenelg, has had to lay off 21 of his 30 employees.

Best has nine employees currently working curbside and delivery, with a 25% pay cut. In early May, he received a government Paycheck Protection Program loan, which will allow him to pay all of his employees starting May 22.

“There’s no way we could ever afford to give back the money they gave us,” Best said of the PPP loan.

Both Best and McGee Mariman said without the loan, they could not survive.

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Ten Oaks Tavern is currently bringing in 25% of its normal revenue, and Best is disappointed that Ball’s restrictions don’t put his business on track to open at the same time other restaurants in the state will, per the governor’s advisory.

“Being a small business owner, trying to provide for my wife and two kids. It’s taken a toll,” Best said. “I don’t think we’ll ever get back to where we were [before the pandemic].”

For McGee Mariman, her Paycheck Protection Program loan will financially carry Thirty Hair until June 24. She has until June 30 for all of her staff to be on payroll to have the loan forgiven by the government.

Ball argued Friday the difficultly of maintaining physical distancing at hair salons, particularly at hair washing stations.

McGee Mariman, however, said she has all the necessary precautions in place. Customers would have to text the salon when they arrived outside for their appointment, and staff would open the doors to let them in. The middle of three shampoo bowls would be closed. Customers and staff would be masked during the entirety of their interactions, and each station and chair would be cleaned after each customer is serviced.

With thousands of clients to call and reschedule appointments and three dozen new client requests, McGee Mariman is eager to get back to work. Right now, Thirty Hair is planning a soft opening for Tuesday.

While McGee Mariman “understands and respects” the delicate balance of health and economic safety, she said families depend on her for their survival.

“I have a business and 10 employees to fight for,” she said.

Chris Oxenham, owner of a Howard County financial services company, helped start the Facebook group Reopen Howard County to address concerns like those of Best and McGee Mariman.

“Our group felt in particular that small business owners are not getting their voices heard,” Oxenham said. “There just doesn’t seem to be anyone standing up for those voices.”

Oxenham said there is a disproportionate relationship between how small and large businesses are being treated by the state and the county. He said the group’s sole agenda is to allow small businesses to reopen within the county, and it is not affiliated with Reopen Maryland, a group that protested in Annapolis on Friday, May 15.

Oxenham said businesses are running on tight margins. He said he has spoken to hundreds of small business owners in the county since the pandemic began and worries neighboring jurisdictions, like Frederick and Carroll counties, will draw customers from Howard businesses.

“They want to be given the chance to get some revenue in the door because their situation is so bleak,” Oxenham said. “Small business owners want to try; they want to be given the opportunity to try.”

McGee Mariman, who is a Carroll County resident, said she saw Facebook posts by businesses that urged residents of counties with stricter reopening rules to head to Frederick and Carroll counties, where the restrictions are looser.

“People are going to go where they see the best deal,” she said.

Yungmann worries that if the county doesn’t follow the state’s phase one guidance soon, there could be repercussions for small businesses.

“This isn’t just about business people wanting to make money. This about people losing everything they have,” Yungmann said.

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