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Navigating the pandemic: Carroll County’s ‘can-do’ spirit emerged as local businesses, restaurants felt COVID-19 impact

COVID-19 overshadowed all else in 2020, affecting every aspect of life in Carroll. This week, the Times is looking back at how five key sectors — business, education, government, health care and law enforcement — adapted and carried on amid the coronavirus pandemic.

This year’s Carroll Biz Challenge had a different look and feel to it thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Carroll Arts Center hosted the annual event, sponsored by the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce, and finalists presented their ideas on a stage that was kept socially distant. Judges maintained space, and the hosts did their best to entertain while the event was streamed live over the internet.

Despite the limitations and restrictions this year, Chamber of Commerce President Mike McMullin said there were 29 applicants for the Carroll Biz Challenge. And that spoke to the county’s spirit during a challenging time, he said.

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“We’ve just got to [feel] really lucky that we live in an area like this because this is a ‘What can I do about it?’ kind of an area,” McMullin said. “This is a real can-do area.”

Carroll’s local businesses have felt the impact of the coronavirus pandemic over the last nine months, and McMullin said eating establishments were hit hardest. Retail and restaurants dealt with closures and restrictions and health concerns amid the pandemic, but got help in the form of grant money. The CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Fund and the Carroll County Restaurant Relief Fund totaled a combined $1.2 million in state and federal help.

The county fulfilled its goal of doling out $500,000 to county businesses in need (there were more than 140 applicants), and wound up giving money to more than 80% of Carroll’s restaurants as well.

McMullin said restaurants “bore the brunt” of the COVID-19 crush. Many adapted, embracing carryout and offering outdoor eating to comply with indoor restrictions and to make diners feel safer. McMullin is hoping they can withstand the next few cold-weather months with a vaccine on schedule and a look toward normalcy in the future.

“We’ve just got to hope that all of the restaurants that we love actually make it and that they all survive,” McMullin said. “That’s why I’m always preaching to folks, as the holidays are here and you’ve got to buy a gift or a gift card for somebody, go to one of the local restaurants in the area.”

The Carroll County Chamber of Commerce last week released a video on its website that recapped 2020 in highlight form. McMullin provided an introduction before the video went through a list of things the county achieved this year, from the Biz Challenge ― won this year by Willet Family Farm, an agritourism establishment based in Westminster ― to the annual Leadership Carroll program, from the county’s Restaurant Week to a resume of the chamber’s accomplishments.

The chamber worked with local restaurants in a video series called Carroll Corona Carryout, which featured chamber members meeting virtually to share a meal and promote some of the county’s local eateries.

Parents, Kids, Commissioner Dennis Frazier, Chamber of Commerce President, Mike McMullin, Chamber of Commerce Community Engagement Manager, Becky Sieck, Chamber of Commerce Ambassador, Coleen Kramer Beal, Jen Bishop, Carroll County Library, and Co-Owners, Joshua and Vanessa Schmidt and staff were on hand at the ribbon cutting of Code Ninjas Learning Center's grand opening. It's a place for kids ages 5-14 to learn how to build video games. Saturday, November 21, 2020.
Parents, Kids, Commissioner Dennis Frazier, Chamber of Commerce President, Mike McMullin, Chamber of Commerce Community Engagement Manager, Becky Sieck, Chamber of Commerce Ambassador, Coleen Kramer Beal, Jen Bishop, Carroll County Library, and Co-Owners, Joshua and Vanessa Schmidt and staff were on hand at the ribbon cutting of Code Ninjas Learning Center's grand opening. It's a place for kids ages 5-14 to learn how to build video games. Saturday, November 21, 2020. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Carroll County Times)

There were five business grand openings from the chamber amid the pandemic this year, according to the video, as well as more than 60 local pro-business letters sent to Annapolis by the chamber’s legislative committee. The Carroll chamber has more than 600 members, and collected more than 100 new ones in 2020.

County businesses totaled more than 6,800 online clicks from the chamber’s website, according to the video.

“Who could have possibly imagined what a year we had in store for us?” McMullin said during his intro on the video. “In spite of it all, we stayed together. We worked together, we fought this thing together.”

McMullin said he was pleased with the county’s collective efforts to make its businesses survive the perils of the pandemic. The Carroll County Chamber of Commerce had 98 events take place, either in-person or virtually, and McMullin said only a few things were canceled altogether as a result of COVID-19 restrictions. Business owners did their best to stay optimistic, he said, despite the climate and conditions.

Server Elizabeth Johnston and chef Cory Pastor work in the kitchen at E.W. Beck's in Sykesville Wednesday, August 5, 2020. Beck's is among the restaurants participating in Carroll County Restaurant Week, which runs August 9-16.
Server Elizabeth Johnston and chef Cory Pastor work in the kitchen at E.W. Beck's in Sykesville Wednesday, August 5, 2020. Beck's is among the restaurants participating in Carroll County Restaurant Week, which runs August 9-16. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

McMullin said he thinks restaurants will continue their outdoor eating plans going forward, and other businesses will utilize online options for customers. Amazon doesn’t always lend itself to smaller local shops, he said.

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And, with a vaccine on its way, McMullin said he’s looking forward to the day when most people can interact face-to-face without any major health and safety concerns.

“You get dealt a hand that you didn’t want to have dealt,” he said. “But then you find positives to it and hopefully you’re able to carry those out and make your business even stronger. ... We do live in an area with some amazing folks that are very entrepreneurial and can pivot pretty fast to do things that they hadn’t done before.”

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