Salisbury Rising 2020: Covid response was fast, unified

Since the pandemic’s beginning, the city’s daily Covid-19 update — hosted first by Mayor Jake Day and ,ore recently by City Administrator Julia Glanz — has been a must-watch Facebook Live event. The 5 p.m. interactive presentation has been an essential means to improve communication, answer questions and reassure the public during the prolonged health crisis.

Back in March, when no one was sure what the Coronavirus would really do, the Salisbury community quickly tapped into all of its business, health care and governmental leadership channels.

The goal was quickly determined: Preserve public health by slowing the spread of the virus and mitigate the pandemic’s economic toll.

In Salisbury, the leader of the city’s government, Mayor Jake Day, immediately formed a regional Coronavirus task force, where municipal leaders could share real-time updates on cases and share best practices for communicating and implementing health restrictions.

At TidalHealth Peninsula Regional, Intensive Care Unit beds were added and a special team was formed to set policies, map out treatment protocols and inform the public of the potential hazards.

The county Health Department began an immediate reporting system to track both Covid-19 cases and trace where and how the virus might have spread.

The community’s wide-ranging nonprofits sector, together with Social Services agencies, advocated for ways to expand direct income support programs for people and families in need. They worked with the public school system to ensure families with children who depend on free or reduced school lunches might still receive a meal.

To keep the virus from spreading, policymakers and community leaders strongly encouraged social distancing, which included closing schools, the library and community centers, cancelling events; requiring telework where possible, ordering retail shops, restaurants and bars to close or shift to delivery service, and setting strict limits on public gatherings.

Testing was seen as an essential, available service, and testing was quickly offered at outdoor public venues, such as Arthur W. Perdue Stadium.

Salisbury implemented plans designed to help city renters, first responders, low-income residents, businesses and houses of worship get back on their feet.

The city’s Next Step program provided immediate relief and protection to residents and business owners. The plan also sought to engage landlords in the city, reminding them about the laws regarding evictions, which could add to Salisbury’s homeless population in the midst of a public health crisis.

The city also agreed to a city property tax credit for all full-time Salisbury Police Department and Salisbury Fire Department employees, as well as volunteer firefighters with the city. The credits of up to $2,500 would be granted only on properties within the city limits that serve as their principal residences.

Exploiting the deep ties that they have long maintained to lobby for community improvement and communicate economic needs, the areas business groups — most notably the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Salisbury Committee and Salisbury-Wicomico Economic Development — established information banks and began accepting applications for grants that would keep workers employed and businesses afloat.

No doubt, the Coronavirus pandemic has placed extraordinary demands on leaders in business and beyond. The humanitarian toll taken by Covid-19 has created fear among employees and other stakeholders. The massive scale of the outbreak and its sheer unpredictability have made any response — be it in health care, government or business — a response challenge.

Unified business effort

One of the first things that Bill Chambers, President/CEO of the Chamber; Mike Dunn, President/CEO of GSC; and Dave Ryan, Executive Director of SWED; realized was that information was going to be vital. So each organization played a role in making sure that the concerns of the local business community were being shared with various state and federal partners.

The three entities kept in constant contact with the Lower Shore’s U.S. Senators, Gov. Larry Hogan’s office, the General Assembly delegation and our area businesses. Chamber, GSC and SWED members were receiving daily updates which offered key contact points for needs such as unemployment claims, PPP loans and other potential aid.

“For the first couple of months,” Dunn said, “GSC sent out a Daily Covid-19 email to all of our members, just galvanizing around one thought — people needed information, and it was up to us to play a role in making sure they had it.”

The Chamber began hosting webinars for its members, and since March has held 37 such interactive sessions. The Chamber was accustomed to hosting face-to-face networking events, and needed to embrace online interfacing as quickly as possible. “This was all new for all of us,” said Chambers. “We had never had to do webinars before.”

Zoom meetings were not only held to communicate locally, they were a method to interact with state leaders and trade groups.

“Just the other day, GSC put together a Zoom call with Comptroller (Peter) Franchot.” said Dunn. “We had nearly 30 participants on the call. The Comptroller wanted to hear directly from the business community about what their concerns were. And the business community didn’t disappoint.

“Additionally, once a month, Bill Chambers holds a Zoom meeting with the Restaurant Association of Maryland and the local restaurateurs,” said Dunn.

“I share these stories to simply say that, yes, there are concerns – deep concerns – that small retailers and restaurants are having a tough time throughout this pandemic. That’s not news. What is news, perhaps, is that collectively, we are not doing nothing.”

Previous experience working together has been an advantage during the pandemic.

“Our organizations, most especially over these last five years or so, work closely together,” said Dunn.

Mike Dunn.

“Our goals are similar in so many ways. Yet they are also quite distinct from one another. When Dave Ryan calls, as an example, and says there’s a new business that is thinking about locating to the area, we rally.

“And if he asks us to meet with that client, we jump. We follow Dave’s lead, and, collectively, we try to show the community in the best way possible.”

Dunn also has praise for how government leaders have reacted.

“Mayor Day, and now City Administrator Julia Glanz, have been doing nearly daily Facebook live discussions since all of this began,” he said. “Gov. Hogan and Comptroller Franchot have been relentless in staying in touch and trying to do the best they can to help under these very difficult circumstances.

“And just two days ago, Wicomico Health Officer Lori Brewster, in conjunction with the city of Salisbury and Wicomico County, held a Zoom call with a business sector to get some feedback. So, collectively, from where GSC sits, we couldn’t ask for more.”

Grants quickly dispensed

Wicomico County businesses struggling to stay afloat during the Covid-19 pandemic were made eligible for financial help from a pot of $8 million in federal funds to the county.

The money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act – or CARES Act – was offered as grants of up to $10,000 to cover operating expenses for three months.

Among other qualifications, grants were targeted at three months operating expenses for businesses with 25 or fewer employees.

In all, some 900 businesses in Wicomico have thus far been assisted.

There are about 2,000 businesses in Wicomico County with 25 or fewer employees, many of which were forced either to shut for a while or to adapt new ways of doing business. In addition to payroll, rent, mortgages and utility bills, business owners also had the added expense of providing personal protection equipment such as masks, gloves and plexiglass barriers to protect their employees and customers.

SWED’s Ryan accepted the role of grants administrator.

Economic Development Offices are accustomed to assisting businesses in the preservation and creation of jobs and, as such, most counties throughout Maryland used those offices to administer CARES Act business assistance programs.

“Wicomico was no different,” said Ryan. “In our case, we combined expertise and resources from both public and private sectors to design, implement and administer the program that we believe offered value to our small business community.”

Ryan said that — based on comments from applicants and grant recipients — the process went well in terms of user friendliness, processing efficiency and ultimately, receipt of funds.

Dave Ryan.

“Understanding the need, we processed and funded as applications were received, averaging approximately $1 million a week in distributed funds over an eight to nine week period,” he said.

Ryan said businesses seemed more than merely appreciative.

“What resonated was kindness, concern and generosity,” Ryan said. “Throughout the process, we witnessed neighbors helping neighbors — and even competitors helping competitors.

“Business owners promoted our program to other businesses throughout their shopping center or office building. Some shared social media posts while others reached peers directly,” he said.

“The resilience, spirit and positivity of our small business community during such challenging and uncertain times was and is remarkable and it’s what creates that fabric of community which makes our county so special,” Ryan said.

Moving on to reopening

There’s a sense that more help will be needed as communities head into the next phase toward reopenings.

“We’re focusing our efforts completely on reopening,” said Chambers. “It’s a monumental prospect — nobody has ever had to reopen anything before.”

Bill Chambers.

The Chamber was instrumental in Gov. Hogan’s recent decision to allow restaurants to operate at 75 percent capacity, instead of the 50 percent figure in place since spring.

“The governor heard our concerns,” Chambers said. “With the weather turning to fall, outdoor dining wasn’t going to remain the best option. We were able to positively communicate our local needs — and win results.”

He added: “We’re not done. We have a long way to go. We must be sure we don’t let our guard down.”

Ryan said consumer confidence will be the next obstacle to a successful reopening of the economy.

“Even if future ‘reopening’ phases get us back to ‘normal’ occupancy levels, will the consumer have the confidence or desire to return to pre-pandemic behavior?

“Additional assistance may very well be needed should significant spikes in Covid positivity rates occur, confidence is slow to return and as new business models evolve,” Ryan said. “Consumer behavior will be a key metric. If there was ever a time to buy local and support our local businesses, it is now.”

Indeed, what leaders need during a crisis is not a predefined response plan but behaviors and mindsets that will prevent them from overreacting to yesterday’s developments and help them look ahead.

Salisbury has so far been able to rise above the crisis and meet its many challenges head-on.

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