Category Archives: COVID-19

Teachers Unions, State PTA Call for Virtual Learning at Start of School Year

By Adam Pagnucco.

Maryland’s two teachers unions – the Maryland State Education Association and the Baltimore Teachers Union – have signed a joint letter with the Maryland PTA to Governor Larry Hogan and the state superintendent of schools requesting that the next school year begin with virtual learning for at least the first semester. The joint letter is reprinted below.

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Dear Governor Hogan and Superintendent Salmon:

Maryland’s educators and students are eager to return to our classrooms and schools. Educators miss their students, and students miss their teachers and friends. We all miss our school communities, especially as we have come together in incredible ways during the challenging months of this pandemic. Additionally, we know that the inequities facing our Black and Brown students have deepened and widened during the pandemic. There is much work to do to make up for the learning that has been lost and to address the trauma experienced by so many in our school communities.

While we are eager to return to school, we are not blind to the challenges of doing so during this pandemic. Any return to in-person learning must prioritize and guarantee the highest standards for health and safety. Any return must be guided by science and the expertise of educators. Any return to in-person learning also must have renewed commitments to funding and supports so schools are not just ready to open on the first day of school but are safe places to learn and work for the entire school year.

As states have reopened parts of their economies, we have seen infection rates climb. While Maryland has thankfully not experienced the recent spike that other states have, the virus remains an ever-present threat and impediment to normalcy. Maryland is still in a declared state of emergency and the reopening of limited services has rightfully been done with caution. It should not be lost on anyone that physically reopening schools would be, by several orders of magnitude, a much more ambitious—and dangerous—undertaking than any other reopening step we have taken thus far. We are all familiar with the risks:

• bringing together high numbers of people in enclosed, inconsistently ventilated, indoor spaces for hours at a time;
• the significant numbers of educators who are particularly susceptible to the virus (24% of all teachers according to a July 10 Kaiser Family Foundation analysis);
• the significant numbers of Black and Brown students (who make up more than 50% of our student body statewide) and their families who unjustly face healthcare disparities that have made them more likely to be infected and killed by the coronavirus; these students also disproportionately rely on public transportation to get to school, compounding risk before arriving at school facilities that may lack necessary ventilation and a safe learning environment;
• the lack of widely available personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing for educators and students;
• the challenges in ensuring that all students and staff are wearing masks, washing hands, and maintaining social distance at all times; and,
• so much that we do not know or understand about the virus and that is seemingly constantly updated by new scientific studies.

For these reasons and more, we are calling for the 2020-2021 school year to begin with virtual learning and instruction for at least the first semester. Protecting the safety of Maryland educators, students, and families requires this action. We believe it is the right approach and will allow time for further evaluation of health matrices, stakeholder input, and the educational needs of students on a district-by-district basis to allow for a transition to a hybrid learning model after the year begins and possibly a mostly in-person model later in the school year if and when it is safe.

Making this decision now would give every district at least a full six weeks to plan and troubleshoot around one known and understood model of learning. Exceptions to this should be possible only in districts with the very lowest levels of infection and community spread, and with the strong educator and family support necessary in those jurisdictions. Provided they are able to do so at the highest levels of safety, districts should explore whether a limited hybrid model with very small groups of students is feasible with limited student populations for whom equity concerns around extended virtual learning are greatest. Educators who feel comfortable working with these students or working in school buildings should be able to do so.

When districts can have a laser focus on one model, they can better concentrate their resources and work with educators and stakeholders to be successful with virtual learning for all students. This reopening model would allow districts to resolve the inequities of the digital divide that were laid bare this spring. Additionally, focusing on a completely virtual model would allow districts to be better prepared if the state must reverse course and move back into Phase I or a complete quarantine again at some point during the school year.

We agree with Governor Hogan that we will not be bullied by political pressure from Washington, DC. We will not succumb to politics that would place Maryland educators, students, or families in harm’s way and have them participate in a potentially deadly experiment. There is an inhuman callousness that attempts to use the lower transmission rates and mortality rates for people under the age of 18 as justification for reopening schools. Not only does this completely ignore the adults in schools who would undoubtedly have a higher rate of transmission and death, but it also presupposes that there is a number of deaths of students and educators that is acceptable. There is not.

This is not an over-reaction; indeed, we believe this is the tough but responsible action. Opening schools safely takes resources. That is an inconvenient truth for some, especially considering that many people demanding to fully reopen our school buildings for in-person instruction have never advocated for fully funding our schools to begin with. While we see professional sports leagues aiming to provide daily tests to 100% of their athletes, there does not seem to be a single school reopening plan that attempts to commit to provide testing for students or school employees who want it. We have seen the federal government send billions of dollars to airlines and huge corporations in the wake of the pandemic, but we have seen far less urgency and far, far less funding directed to helping our public schools weather this time of crisis.

We should not accept lower safety standards in our schools than we do in our stores, our restaurants, and our barber shops and salons. Many schools do not have the resources or physical capacity to maintain basic protective steps, such as adequate physical distancing, appropriate supplies of PPE, rapid testing for staff and students, sufficient cleaning supplies, and high-quality ventilation systems to avoid the recirculation of air. We need to face reality: too many schools in Maryland have restrooms that lacked soap or paper towels on a normal day before the pandemic. In the face of no additional funding at the federal, state, or local level—let alone threatened budget cuts—it is not realistic to believe that all schools will be equipped with additional and more expensive necessities to stay safe on a daily basis.

The federal funds provided through the CARES Act have largely back-filled unanticipated expenses incurred to close out the last school year. Well-intentioned plans for hybrid learning would require levels of new funding that are not even being contemplated and are impossible to imagine being available for the start of the coming school year. Instead of demanding school systems do more with less, we should continue to unite in our advocacy for additional federal aid and bold state action.

We strongly believe that students gain the most academically, socially, and emotionally when they can learn in-person with their peers, but that learning must take place in a healthy and safe environment. Unfortunately, the facts and science do not support the notion that returning educators and students to schools is safe. Starting the school year unsafely would not be good for our students, especially if another abrupt closure and shift to distance learning becomes necessary. Moreover, seeing their teachers, peers, or family members become ill due to a school-based spread of coronavirus would be traumatizing. Starting the school year unsafely will likely only postpone when we can fully return to safe in-person learning. Loss of learning can be made up. Loss of life cannot.

There are no perfect solutions. Clearly, reopening schools without a thorough understanding of the resources, protocols, and costs to ensure and protect public health would be irresponsible. In light of this, demanding 100% in-person instruction under the circumstances is unsafe and unwise. An adequate hybrid plan requires all the safety protocols of in-person learning as well as addressing all the technology divides of virtual learning. Each of these would require more staff members. Without significant emergency federal or state funds, such an undertaking would be prohibitively expensive. We certainly saw tremendous inequities and learning loss when forced into crisis virtual learning at the end of the last school year. We now better understand the flaws of virtual learning and have a better sense of how to fix them. Virtual learning will not be perfect, but it will save lives.

The most prudent course of action now is to focus on how we can provide the highest possible quality of virtual learning during the first semester of the school year, during which time we hope that the virus is mitigated to a level that will allow for a subsequent expansion of in-person learning. To do that, we must focus our plans and resources to:

• reach a 1:1 student to device ratio as soon as possible;
• increase internet access to students and educators who lack it at home;
• continue to run school-based meal services;
• expand professional development for educators and training and resources for students and families to increase virtual learning fluency;
• engage in trauma-informed practices; and,
• deploy crisis intervention teams where needed.

These are the immediate needs that must be addressed with the limited time and resources districts have before the school year begins. We must concurrently build long-term plans for how we will address the learning gaps and inequities that we have always known to exist and combat the structural factors that prevent Black and Brown students from receiving an equitable education and opportunity.

We are well aware that prolonged virtual learning is challenging for parents as well as for educators and students, as is a hybrid model. We urge state and county leaders and employers to be accommodating to their employees who are parents with flexible or remote work policies and state-facilitated childcare similar to what was done for healthcare workers. We must be in this together and have empathy for one another.

We must rise above politics and focus on the reality and complexities of safely reopening schools. If we open our schools too quickly and without adequate safety precautions, the result will be that some educators, students, and their family members will contract the coronavirus. Some will recover, some will face debilitating health consequences or healthcare bills that they cannot pay, and some will die. These are stubborn facts. And they are costs and consequences that we must refuse to accept.

A perfect solution does not exist. A safe one does. We urge you to support this course. We stand ready to work with you to ensure that the coming school year is as safe and successful as possible for all of Maryland’s students and educators.

Sincerely,

Cheryl Bost, President, MSEA
Diamonté Brown, President, BTU
Dr. Edna Harvin Battle, President, Maryland PTA

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Restaurant: My Staff Will Not Wear Face Masks

By Adam Pagnucco.

Last night, The Grille at Flower Hill, a restaurant in Gaithersburg, posted a complaint on Facebook about the county’s health department enforcing the county’s social distancing and mask rules. Specifically, the post said, “Let me be very clear…my staff will not wear face masks while working here at the Grille. If that bothers you then please dine elsewhere and please try to find something more important to occupy your time such as volunteer at a nursing home or soup kitchen. Whoever you are that filed the complaint, you need to take a good look in the mirror and try to find some real meaning in your life.”

In response to huge pushback, the restaurant doubled down. “You are all missing the very premise of my post. Look at it this way, if you don’t like what is on TV or the radio…change the channel. You all act like i am physically forcing people to come into my restaurant. Every single person that has dined here had a choice and they all chose to eat here knowing full well the staff was not wearing masks.”

Here is just a small sample of the reaction this post generated.

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Never, ever giving you or any other firm owned by you my business again.

You’re gonna do a good job at burying your business with this post. It would’ve been better for you to keep quiet about your stance on facemasks rather than post your ignorance for all of Facebook to see and share. Good luck in the coming months.

Publicly, I’d like to thank the health department for doing their jobs. You should be shut down.

Sorry to hear you are making this decision. We used to eat there every week. Not anymore.

Every major media outlet in the area knows about this post. Hope you love bankruptcy!

Will never eat here ever. Ever. EVER. That is if you keep your license.

Besides the total disregard for human lives, this message is totally unprofessional.

Thanks for being candid on how you don’t care about the well being of your staff and patrons.

You just lost my business and I will try to spread the word to any one who will listen regarding your lack of safety for your customers and staff!

Wow. Beyond irresponsible and inconsiderate. What is wrong with you folks?

You need science in your life.

I feel so sad for your employees.

I would not eat at a place that doesn’t care about my health.

I’ll let some investor friends know that a discounted restaurant space will be on the market soon. They’ve already built in disinfecting costs.

I hope we get a Chipotle in that spot instead.

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Even if the Facebook post is deleted, the damage has been done on Yelp.

Want to bet where the county’s health department will be today?

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Elrich Sets June 19 for Phase 2 Reopening

By Adam Pagnucco.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich has announced that the county’s Phase 2 reopening will begin on Friday, June 19 at 5 PM. His press release appears below.


Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich Announces Phase 2 Reopening Date
For Immediate Release: Monday, June 15, 2020

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich and County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles today announced the County has achieved its benchmarks and will officially enter Phase 2 of reopening on Friday, June 19 at 5 p.m.

The County plans to continue with an incremental reopening, based on public health data. Phase 2 allows additional businesses and activities to start and/or increase modified operations under specified guidelines. The guidelines include:

Retail – curbside and limited in-store; one patron per 200 sq. ft. of sales space;
Restaurants – outdoor/patio seating and limited indoor dining with requirements; up to 50 percent capacity maximum indoors if social distancing can be maintained;
Childcare – childcare programs can reopen with a maximum of 15 individuals per classroom;
Gyms – fitness centers, and other indoor physical activities; open with requirements; one patron per 200 sq. ft. of fitness space;
Houses of Worship – virtual, drive-in, and limited indoor and outdoor services with requirements – one congregant/family unit per 200 sq. ft. of service space;
Indoor and Outdoor Gatherings – limited to a maximum of 50 or one person/family unit per 200 sq. ft., whichever is lower
Salons/Barbers/Nails – all personal services allowed by appointment only; one patron per 200 sq. ft. of service delivery space;
Car Washes – open for internal and external cleaning with requirements;
Office Spaces and Multi-tenant Commercial Buildings – limited use for nonessential personnel with requirements; telework strongly encouraged where applicable;
Indoor and Outdoor pools (public and private) – open with capacity restrictions;
Outdoor Day Camps – expanded opening with requirements;
Outdoor Youth Sports – expanded for low-contact sports with requirements;
Parks & Playgrounds – parks open for personal fitness and fitness classes with requirements; playgrounds open with requirements; only low-contact sports allowed; and
Ride On Bus Service – expanded schedule; expanded routes.
Certain outdoor recreation activities and facilities are already permitted: golf courses, archery, shooting ranges, marinas, campgrounds, horseback riding facilities and tennis courts.

The following businesses and services will remain closed in Phase 2:

Concerts and theaters;
Senior centers;
Libraries; and
Recreation facilities.
Protective measures such as maintaining physical distancing, careful cleaning and disinfecting, and face coverings being worn by employees and customers, are just some of the measures being required of businesses that are in this second phase of recovery.

Activities allowed in this phase of reopening are based on metrics the County established with progress overall in decreasing daily numbers of new cases, increasing testing capacity, implementing a large-scale contact tracing effort with the State, decreasing hospitalizations and use of the emergency room by patients with COVID-19 related symptoms, and positive trends in the death rate and test positivity. The COVID-19 Data Dashboard can be viewed on the County’s website.

For the latest COVID-19 updates, visit the County’s COVID-19 website as well as the County’s data dashboard or follow Montgomery County on Facebook @MontgomeryCountyInfo and Twitter @MontgomeryCountyMD.

Put the “count” in Montgomery County! Be sure to complete the Census online, by phone, or by mail. It’s safe, confidential, easy, and important. #2020Census #EveryoneCountsMCMD

#

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Miscreants Run Wild at Elrich Press Conference

By Adam Pagnucco.

It was supposed to be a good moment for Montgomery County. County Executive Marc Elrich was set to announce a phase 1 reopening of county businesses, mirroring in part the recent announcement by Governor Larry Hogan. It was an occasion for cautious optimism with sober recognition of the challenges ahead.

Instead, it turned into a mud-splattered free-for-all.

That was probably inevitable given how the event was staged. The county announced through a press release the night before that the event was taking place at the Kentlands and Bethesda Beat published it. That gave protesters time to prepare and they weren’t planning on handing out cupcakes and milk. Just two weeks ago, they descended on Annapolis – many without masks – to resist “tyranny” and “trampling the U.S. Constitution.” Why would they behave differently in Rockville?

The smart thing to do would have been to hold the event in a controlled environment in the executive office building with attendance limited to press. But the administration decided to go for a photo-op in the Kentlands’ business district instead. Well, a photo-op was had – for the protesters. They got ample coverage from NBC4, WJLA, WTOP, Bethesda Beat and even Baltimore TV that they would not have received at a controlled indoor event.

“Dictator!” “Fascist!” “Nazi!” “Liar!” “Recall!” “Trump 2020 baby, that’s what this is all about!” Those were the nice comments. The protesters repeatedly interrupted and shouted down the executive, preventing others from hearing him. At an event with such heckling, a communications person normally steps forward to cut it off early. Instead, Elrich actually took questions and prolonged the event, which went on for more than 20 minutes. The sign language interpreter even interpreted the hecklers’ comments while standing right next to Elrich.

The look on Elrich’s face (far right) says it all. Also appearing: county health officer Travis Gayles (at podium) and the sign language interpreter (far left). Credit: WJLA Facebook stream.

Besides the relentless yelling, a number of unmasked protesters stood within spitting distance of the executive and his staff. One unmasked fellow in a hat and sunglasses stood behind him for nearly 15 minutes and, at one point, got dangerously close to the executive. Police officers were present. Why did they not move unmasked protesters away from the executive and his staff to protect their health?

How could security allow an unmasked man to get this close to the executive? Credit: WJLA Facebook stream.

As for the protesters, there were enough of them to make serious noise. Just like in Annapolis, the event turned into a mass gathering with unmasked people. The COVID-19 crisis is not over. It’s a complete contradiction to the county’s message to allow – much less to CREATE – a mass gathering including unmasked individuals. It’s not just a PR blunder, it’s a threat to public health.

Note the lack of masks by some at the event. The identity of the child, who was not wearing a mask, has been protected in this photo. Bethesda Beat has several more pictures of unmasked people at the event. Credit: WJLA Facebook stream.

Let’s not mince words: the protesters were boorish miscreants who should be held responsible for their own actions. They are an embarrassment to the county. All of that said, they should never have been given a grand stage on which to run amok in front of TV cameras. Someone on Elrich’s communications team should have raised what a bad idea it would be to hold the event in public with notice to anyone who wanted to attend. Some shutdown protests around the country have turned violent and armed protesters even stormed the Michigan Capitol. The protesters succeeded in turning an announcement which should have furthered stability and progress into one that spotlighted division and chaos.

This event should not have happened.

But it did. And once again the administration has endured a communications debacle that could have been avoided.

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How MoCo Can Balance Public Health and the Economy

By Adam Pagnucco.

When Governor Larry Hogan announced a phase 1 reopening of Maryland’s economy on Friday night, several local jurisdictions (including MoCo) declined to go along. County Executive Marc Elrich said, “If there’s an uptick in cases, our hospitals can’t withstand an uptick… We will change the rules as soon as the science says we can change the rules. When that happens, we will start down the road of reopening things.” Elrich issued an executive order maintaining the current shutdown at the county level and the council approved it.

Elrich’s interest in protecting public health is understandable and commendable but there is a problem: the economy. Everyone understands that the economy has taken and will take collateral damage from COVID-19 restrictions. That said, the chief enemy of job creation is uncertainty and there is tons of that now. June 1 is coming and with it will be rent and mortgage payment deadlines. Many tenants and property owners will miss those deadlines in whole or in part just like they did in the prior two months. Worse yet, it’s hard for tenants and owners to work out flexible payment arrangements when no one knows when reopening will occur. That may cause many businesses to throw in the towel and cease operations permanently.

Given the above, how can the county reconcile the competing objectives of protecting public health and restarting the economy?

The executive has not set a date to ease restrictions. Instead, he has proposed the following 12 criteria that would guide any phased-in reopening:

  1. Sustained (14 days) decreases (rolling average) in:
    i. The number of new cases in the setting of increased testing;
    ii. COVID-19 related hospitalization rate;
    iii. COVID-19 related ICU rate;
    iv. COVID-19 related fatalities;
    v. COVID-19 like and influenza like illnesses presenting to the health care system;
    vi. Percentage of Acute bed usage by COVID-19 related patients;
    vii. Percentage of ICU bed usage by COVID-19 related patients;
    viii. Percentage of emergency/critical care equipment by COVID-19 related patients (e.g. ventilators);
  2. A sustained capacity to test 5% of population per month;
  3. A sustained flattening or decrease in test positivity;
  4. Sustained, robust system in place to contact initial interviews within 24 hours, and initiate contact tracing process within 48 hours of initial lab notification; and
  5. Initiated and created meaningful infrastructure to identify and begin addressing demonstrated COVID related inequities in health outcomes, access to social support services

Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that these are the right criteria. (I may revisit that.) At the moment, only one of them – the number of cases – appears on the county’s COVID-19 page. The state’s COVID-19 page has more data, including cases, fatalities and hospital bed usage, but even the state’s page has nowhere near the data referenced by the county executive’s criteria.

At present, the public has no way to judge how close the county is to reaching the criteria the executive considers key to reopening. That must change.

The county should publish data series on every one of its criteria on its website. Each series should include an easy-to-understand chart explaining what the series is and what its trend is. Here is one example I constructed for new cases, which is the only series currently published by the county.

At the end of the 12 data series, the county should state how many of the executive’s 12 criteria are trending up, trending down or are stable. The county should also clearly indicate how many of the criteria need to be trending down or remaining stable for phase 1 reopening to begin.

Furthermore, the county should update the public via blast email and social media every day on this data.

Implementing this system accomplishes a number of criteria simultaneously. First, it bases the decision to reopen on science. Second, it makes the decision transparent to the public. And third, it provides real guidance to businesses, tenants and property owners on how close the county is getting to reopening. That will help everyone make the decisions they need to make on the basis of real information, not rumor and fear.

The county must implement this as soon as possible. The alternative is to leave residents and employers in the dark on how long the shutdown will last, thereby risking further permanent destruction of jobs and businesses.

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Council Questions Elrich on COVID-19 Strategy

By Adam Pagnucco.

On April 27, the county council sent a memo with a lengthy list of questions on the county’s COVID-19 strategy to County Executive Marc Elrich, Chief Administrative Officer Andrew Kleine and Chief Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles. Council Member Hans Riemer drafted the memo and all nine council members signed it. As of this writing, the council has not yet received a response. We reprint the memo below.

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Testing and tracing are crucial elements of any plan to defeat the novel coronavirus. Answers to the following questions will help the County Council to gain a better understanding of the state of testing and tracing in order to inform the Council’s appropriate oversight. Please respond at your earliest convenience, and please note the requests for regular reporting.

Testing for Coronavirus

How many molecular (PCR) tests per day / week does Montgomery County have access to currently?

Does Montgomery County have access to sufficient tests to meet the Priority 3 recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Interim Guidance: Healthcare Professionals 2019-nCoV?

Specific components in this guidance include the recommendation that health care workers and first responders should have access to PCR tests even if they do not (yet) have symptoms. For whom is that the case today?

If we do not have sufficient tests to meet the CDC guidance, what is the earliest date by which that capacity can be achieved?

What are the county’s projections of needed PCR tests per week?

What sources and volumes of tests has the county procured already?

What sources are being considered?

How many tests per day will be sent to GeneDx / BioReliance?

What are the next planned sites for collecting test samples? How many sites will be needed to meet the Harvard Global Health Institute recommended goal of at least tripling the amount of daily tests?

Does the County government plan to conduct outreach into vulnerable communities to conduct molecular tests where people lack health insurance and may not seek medical referrals for testing?

What additional targeted interventions are planned in the highest reporting zip codes, 20902, 20904, 20906?

Are community healthcare providers aware of current testing options available for their patients?

Please provide us with copies of County communications which update these options available to them.

How are we engaging our primary care clinics, particularly those service multicultural communities, and what is the strategy to engage them moving forward?

Are group homes and similar facilities required to isolate residents who are awaiting test results for COVID-19?

Please explain differences in how testing capacity is administered if it is secured by the County or State government as opposed to capacity available from private labs (Labcorp and Quest).

Please state your vision for using antibody testing to assess community level of past infection.

Are there particular communities where this would be valuable?

When would be the appropriate time to conduct that testing?

Who would conduct that testing?

How would the results be reviewed?

Are you working on this approach now and if so please provide an update.

Tracing and Isolation

What is the County’s plan to identify at-risk individuals so that tracing can be an effective tool to limit the spread of coronavirus?

Who is conducting tracing for Montgomery County today? Please describe all personnel (staff or volunteers or partners) involved and their level of work on the program.

What partnerships are being organized to expand tracing capacity? What is the timeline for those partnerships?

What are the goals and timeline for the County’s tracing program?

The governor has stated that the state’s contract with NOCR will enable 1,000 cases per day to be traced. What is the agreement between the County and the State for tracing Montgomery County cases?

What database does the County use for tracing? Is the County using the State’s COVID Link database?

Whether through COVID Link or another database, do you know for a given case:

  1. How many secondary contacts are then contacted?
  2. Are secondary contacts tested?
  3. Requested to self-isolate?
  4. If so, are they doing that?
  5. This information is requested for a daily report.

In how many hours after a positive test result will the patient, the county, facilities, and family be notified?

Starting with April 20 (if not earlier), please prepare a report showing tracing for all new cases and outcomes of tracing for those contacts.

Please provide a daily updated tracing report from the database (redacted for privacy as necessary) to the Council so that we may monitor the progress of the tracing and isolation initiative.

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Delegates Call on Governor to Cancel Rent, Mortgage Payments (Updated)

By Adam Pagnucco.

District 20 Delegate Jheanelle Wilkins has organized a joint letter to Governor Larry Hogan signed by 48 Delegates asking him to cancel rent and mortgage payments for businesses and residents affected by the COVID-19 crisis. The delegates also write:

In addition to rent and mortgage cancellation, we urge you to take executive action to require renewal of expiring leases, prohibit rent increases and late fees, and require that landlords negotiate reasonable, long-term payment plans. Finally, the undersigned urge the creation of a robust housing relief fund for renters and homeowners alike.

Half of MoCo’s house delegation signed the letter, including Delegates Gabe Acevero (D-39), Lorig Charkoudian (D-20), Charlotte Crutchfield (D-19), Bonnie Cullison (D-19), Lesley Lopez (D-39), David Moon (D-20), Julie Palakovich Carr (D-17), Kirill Reznik (D-39), Emily Shetty (D-18), Jared Solomon (D-18), Vaughn Stewart (D-19) and Wilkins.

We reprint the letter below.

Update: Two more delegates – Dalya Attar (District 41 in Baltimore City) and Al Carr (District 18 in Montgomery County) have signed the letter after we posted it. That means 50 delegates have signed. The updated version appears below.

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Huge Demand for COVID-19 Applications

By Adam Pagnucco.

Montgomery County’s COVID-19 assistance application went live today around 3 PM and demand was both immediate and heavy.

One applicant who completed the county’s form described the process to me as lasting less than 10 minutes. She encountered no problems and said she was “very impressed.”

Another applicant tweeted that he applied roughly 45 minutes after the application went live and was assigned application number 721.

That’s important because, according to the county’s regulations, the first tranche of $10 million will include individual awards of $10,000 each. That implies that only the first qualifying 1,000 applicants will get initial assistance awards. Conceivably, the county could get 1,000 qualifying applications in just a couple hours – or less.

One glitch in the rollout involved an email signup shown on an earlier version of the website. (It’s no longer available.) I signed up a couple days ago and received notification of the application at 4:30 PM. By that point, the queue may have filled up.

Intense interest in assistance will result in the county’s initial funding being claimed RAPIDLY. Those who waited for email notification or other official notice from the county will no doubt raise process protests if they indeed lose out because of application timing.

The process has been far from perfect as I have previously written. But let’s also acknowledge that even with a perfect process, this was going to be very tough sledding.

Expect more of the same!

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Elrich Administration Releases COVID-19 Small Business Assistance Regs

By Adam Pagnucco.

At 9:09 PM last night, I published a post on the county’s $20 million COVID-19 small business assistance program noting that no regulations governing its disbursements had yet been sent to the county council or published for the public. Roughly 20 minutes later, the regulations were sent to the council and forwarded to me by multiple sources almost immediately. The regulations appear below.

There are many details of interest to applicants, who should read every word of these regulations. The provisions that stand out to me are the ones setting aside $10 million for near-term disbursement and reserving $10 million for later. Consider these specific provisions.

Section 4 (b). $10,000,000.00 of funds appropriated for this Program are reserved for businesses or nonprofit organizations that demonstrate Significant Financial Loss. The initial grant award disbursed under this component of the Program is $10,000. The remaining amount of Significant Financial Loss demonstrated by these businesses and non-profit organizations may be disbursed subsequently, subject to the availability of funds.

Section 5(e)(B)(6). Business that have suffered Significant Financial Loss will be eligible for an immediate disbursement of up to $10,000. If the Percentage Decline is 50% or greater, Subtract the Adjusted PHE Revenue from the relevant historical average (Monthly Historical Average for monthly Adjusted PHE Revenue, Quarterly Historical Average for quarterly Adjusted PHE Revenue) to get the Recommended Grant Amount, up to a maximum of $10,000.

Section 5(e)(B)(7). Subtract the Adjusted PHE Revenue from the relevant historical average (Monthly Historical Average for monthly Adjusted PHE Revenue, Quarterly Historical Average for quarterly Adjusted PHE Revenue) to get the Recommended Grant Amount, up to a maximum of $75,000.

Section 5(e)(B)(8). Subject to the availability of funds, once the initial $10,000,000 reserve has been committed, applicants who qualified for more than an initial disbursement of $10,000 and applicants who qualify for a grant that have not received funding will be evaluated and the remaining balance will be disbursed.

And so $10 million will be disbursed sooner and $10 million will be disbursed later. Instead of the full $75,000 maximum grant provided in the legislation passed by the council, applicants will get a maximum of $10,000 in the first round and may get a chance for more money later. When will the second $10 million go out? That’s not clear, but the caveat of “subject to the availability of funds” in Sections 4(b) and 5(e)(B)(8) is not encouraging. Given the volume of paperwork required in the application process, it could take a while.

None of this appears in the legislation creating the program. The council prioritized speed in disbursing the full $20 million it allocated for assistance. The executive branch took twice as long as the District of Columbia to get its assistance program going and now plans to hold back half the money. The council just introduced a new appropriation of $5 million for restaurants and retailers. Given these regulations, what will happen to that money?

The executive branch is not implementing this program in accordance with the legislative intent of the council. The council must take additional action to enforce its will. NOW.

The regulations appear below.

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Fact, Rumor and Chaos on COVID-19 Assistance

By Adam Pagnucco.

The county has announced via press release that COVID-19 assistance for small businesses will be open for application tomorrow (April 15). But questions arise both from the release and what is not in the release.

1. The application process is supposed to open in the “mid-afternoon.” No exact time is given in the press release. Will business owners be refreshing their browsers for hours waiting for the application to go live?

2. According to the press release, “The County will host webinars to answer questions and provide updates on the PHEG program starting at 9 a.m. Mondays through Saturdays. The first webinar will be held on Thursday, April 16.” In other words, the first Q&A webinar will not take place until THE DAY AFTER applications open.

3. As of this writing, multiple sources in the council building report that the council does not have final regulations governing the disbursement of the money. How is the administration going to make decisions on who gets the money? Why have these criteria, in the form of a regulation or otherwise, not been publicly released – or at least sent to the council – prior to the start of applications?

4. The legislation passed by the council authorized grants of up to $75,000. At the time of passage, council members stressed their interest in rapid disbursement. Today, a phone call was held by representatives of the executive branch with representatives of the business community in which some details were shared about the administration’s plans. According to an individual present on the call, “We heard that the 1st wave was the first 1,000 qualified recipients would receive $10,000 as a start. They may receive more later TBD.” Furthermore, only losses in March will be considered and priority will go to businesses with losses of more than $50,000. An earlier requirement that applicants apply for federal and state assistance first has been dropped. So it appears that $10 million will be disbursed first and that $10 million will wait for later – at least as of this writing. If there is indeed a hold on part of the money, why is that? What will happen to it and when will it get released?

This would be a lot easier to figure out if the administration simply released its regulations on how they are making these decisions, or even a simple guidance document. Instead, in the absence of published documentation, rumor rules the day.

Let’s be clear: the executive branch is in a tough spot here. They had to stand up a $20 million assistance program on short notice (although D.C. did the same in half the time). If they disburse small checks to lots of businesses, the money may not be enough to help any of them. If they disburse large checks that might be helpful, MANY businesses will be left out. So there are choices to make.

The problems are that the executive branch is diverging widely from the intent for speed of the legislation passed by the council, is forcing applicants to sit next to a browser and refresh it potentially for hours, is not offering aid for completing the application until the day after it goes live and has not published details of how it intends to spend $20 million.

This process is in need of improvement.

The press release is reprinted below.


For Immediate Release: Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Montgomery County Public Health Emergency Grant (PHEG) Program Applications Will Be Accepted Starting Mid-Afternoon on Wednesday, April 15

Montgomery County will begin accepting applications to its Public Health Emergency Grant (PHEG) program beginning mid-afternoon on Wednesday, April 15. The PHEG initiative is designed to help for profit and nonprofit businesses with 100 employees or fewer during the current public health crisis.

A sample of the application is now available in English and Spanish on the PHEG program web page. The website provides information for businesses on how to prepare their grant applications. The sample applications will guide businesses in pulling together the information and documents required to file their applications.

A fact sheet describing eligibility and document requirements also will be available in Spanish, Amharic, French, Korean, Mandarin and Vietnamese.

The $20 million PHEG initiative is a collaborative effort between County Executive Marc Elrich and the Montgomery County Council. In addition to for-profit and nonprofit businesses, the program is open to businesses with no employees including sole proprietors and independent contractors.

Montgomery County’s PHEG program is intended to provide financial assistance to establishments that have experienced a significant reduction in revenue as a result of the current public health emergency. The County is encouraging businesses and nonprofit organizations to review other assistance programs and apply to those for which they are eligible.

The County will host webinars to answer questions and provide updates on the PHEG program starting at 9 a.m. Mondays through Saturdays. The first webinar will be held on Thursday, April 16. For links and instructions, visit www.montgomerycountymd.gov/biz-resources/pheg.

More information on the PHEG program is available at www.montgomerycountymd.gov/Biz Resources/pheg/. Questions about the program should be directed to BizinfoCovid19@montgomerycountymd.gov.

For the latest updates, visit the County’s COVID-19 website and follow Montgomery County on Facebook @MontgomeryCountyInfo and Twitter @MontgomeryCoMD.

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