County economy revs into first gear

Tom Blandford, Board Chair of the Charles County Chamber of Commerce, speaks at a press conference announcing the county’s plan for initial stage one reopening.

As of this past Friday at 5:00 pm, Charles County has synchronized its business reopening schedule with Gov. Hogan’s “Roadmap to Recovery,” including the lifting of the stay-at-home order, the limited opening of outdoor dining and swimming pools, and the resumption of elective medical procedures, among other allowable activities.

The unanimous decision by the Board of Charles County Commissioners — taken during a special session held online Thursday afternoon — was spurred by the governor’s announcement the previous day that the state was ready for the completion of stage one of its recovery plan due to favorable trends in COVID-19 hospitalization and ICU rates and testing availability throughout the state.

Restaurants are required to obtain temporary outdoor seating permits before they can open for dining, either from the town governments of La Plata and Indian Head, or through the county government website if the business is located outside those jurisdictions.

Two weeks ago, a majority of the county commissioners voted to delay the initial rollout of stage-one reopening plans for two weeks, a decision that sparked two after-hours protests in the parking lot of the Charles County Government building in La Plata and generated considerable debate, both pro and con, in community social media groups.

At the time of the vote, Charles County was ranked 10th in the state for confirmed cases per 10,000 people by the Maryland Department of Health, with 796 confirmed cases and 33 deaths. University of Maryland Charles Regional Medical Center reported an overall gradual decline in new COVID-19 admissions and no increase in the number of cases in the hospital’s skilled nursing facility or long-term care wards.

Those data were among the reasons that District 1 Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D) and Commissioners’ Vice President Bobby Rucci (D) voted against delaying the reopening for those two additional weeks.

“I think you trust the science and you trust the doctors and you trust the medical professionals that came before us at our [May 14] commissioners’ meeting,” Bowling told TLR in a recent interview. “Everybody said, ‘We’re ready.’ So I based my decision off of not only the safety and welfare of the community, but the best interest of the community. When I took into consideration my vote, I listened to the experts and I felt that we were ready.”

Bowling said that he appreciated the health risks posed by the COVID-19 virus and encouraged people to continue staying at home if they were at risk or concerned about their health. “But there’s a lot of small businesses out here that are just trying to survive, and those are people in our community too,” Bowling said. “I think they’re very responsible people and they’ve had ample time to prepare. I think they were ready and I think they’re still ready, and I think they’ll be ready for phase two and three as well.”

To help businesses prepare for reopening, the Charles County Chamber of Commerce developed a 26-page “Framework for Opening Charles County Business” that includes guidance for assessing workplace safety, ensuring accommodations for physical distancing, and establishing a cleaning regimen and training regimens. It also includes a sample health screening form and preparedness checklist that businesses can adopt for their own uses.

To help businesses gain access to needed resources and promote their reopenings, the Chamber of Commerce also extended free memberships to all businesses and nonprofits in Charles County through the end of August.

Bonnie Grady, the chamber’s president and CEO, said that prior to the commissioners’ vote on the two-week postponement, a survey of chamber member businesses found that 58% of them felt they were ready to reopen. “Once the decision was made by our board of commissioners, we decided to respect that. The law is the law, the commissioners took a vote and the majority wins,” Grady told TLR. “It gave us two more weeks to help our businesses [and to] provide them with any additional information they might need.”

Grady said that the COVID-19 crisis has been an ideal opportunity for the Chamber of Commerce to act as a convener, bringing together representatives from the business, nonprofit, and government communities to reach consensus on a wide variety of issues.

“Since [publishing the stage one guidelines], we’ve gotten some more resources that we’ll be using to address phase two,” Grady said. “But we feel that the guide was a good start. I’ve been told that this was the first time in quite some time that all of the local business organizations, county government, the towns, and the chamber have all been able to come together and agree on a message, and the message was, ‘Let’s open, but let’s open safely.’”

“If that’s the best thing that comes out of the COVID virus, then we’ve accomplished something as a community and we truly are Charles County Strong,” Grady said.

photo: Tom Blandford, Board Chair of the Charles County Chamber of Commerce, speaks at a press conference on Tuesday, May 26, announcing the county’s plans for initial stage-one reopening. (TLR photo)