Tag Archives: COVID-19

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.

Share

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.

*****

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.

Share

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.

Share

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!

Share

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.

Share

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.

#

Share

D.C. Leads MoCo on COVID-19 Grants

By Adam Pagnucco.

As complaints mount on MoCo’s not-yet-functioning process for distributing COVID-19 grants to small businesses, let’s contrast our performance to the District of Columbia.

The D.C. City Council passed a bill creating a $25 million grant program for small businesses impacted by the COVID-19 crisis on March 17. The bill also contains a number of delays on taxes and regulations that were not part of Montgomery County’s relief package, although some similar measures have been adopted by other counties in Maryland.

The D.C. government opened the applications process for the grants on March 24. The applications were closed on April 1.

That means 7 days elapsed between the creation of the program and the start of applications. The total time between creation of the program and the closing of applications was 15 days.

The Montgomery County Council passed a bill creating a $20 million grant program on March 31. On April 8, 8 days later, 7 council members wrote a letter complaining to the county executive that the grant process was nowhere close to being ready. That same day, the county published a document list for the grant process but had no application available.

Today is April 14. D.C. opened its applications within 7 days of its council creating its grant fund. MoCo has gone 14 days since creating its fund and, as of this writing, no applications are online. It has been almost two weeks since D.C. closed its application process and we don’t even have one yet. Small businesses in D.C. had a chance to apply for assistance in time to pay rent and bills due on April 1. Small businesses in MoCo did not have that chance.

What is going on, MoCo government?

Share

D.C., Maryland Jurisdictions Start Deferring Taxes, Fees and Regulations

By Adam Pagnucco.

The District of Columbia and several local jurisdictions in Maryland have begun deferring a variety of taxes, fees and regulations during the coronavirus crisis. Taken together, these deferrals provide a useful menu of options for local policy makers.

The District has been the most aggressive local jurisdiction in deferring tax payments. D.C. has extended its filing deadline for individual and fiduciary income tax returns, partnership tax returns and franchise tax returns to July 15. (This matches the income tax filing extensions of the federal government and the State of Maryland.) D.C. has also extended deadlines for filing sales and use tax returns and paying hotel property taxes.

Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski Jr. issued an executive order “providing an extension of all County licenses, permits, registrations and other authorizations until 30 days following the end of the local state of emergency. The order also authorizes the head of each government agency to suspend the effect of any legal or procedural deadline, due date, time of default, time expiration, period of time or other statute, rule or regulation that it administers. This applies to suspensions concerning payments of late fees owed to Baltimore County.” The county also suspended all parking citations.

Garrett County deferred three scheduled payments of its accommodation tax by more than two months each. The deferrals followed closures of rental properties. Vacation rentals are a big business in Garrett County so this is not an insignificant act by the county.

Carroll County postponed its annual tax sale and froze penalties on unpaid tax accounts.

Charles County closed its government buildings but agreed to waive online transaction fees for payment of taxes and utilities.

The City of Frederick suspended daytime parking meter enforcement and extended due dates for city bills, permits, licensures and citations until 30 days after the state of emergency ends.

The City of Annapolis delayed its liquor license renewal requirement for 90 days and left open the possibility of further delays.

WSSC announced it would “suspend all water service shutoffs for those facing financial difficulties until further notice.”

None of these deferrals are earth shattering but they are helpful to residents and businesses in small ways. Policy makers in Montgomery County and beyond should consider if any of them, or perhaps others, are feasible and appropriate in their own jurisdictions.

Share

Will County Bureaucracy Strangle Small Business Assistance?

By Adam Pagnucco.

On March 31, the county council passed Bill 16-20E, which established a $20 million Public Health Emergency Grant Program to assist businesses and non-profits with 100 or fewer employees that have been damaged by the coronavirus crisis. The idea behind the bill was to get relief to small businesses quickly before they go under.

Unfortunately, the county bureaucracy may have other ideas.

Yesterday, seven council members released a blistering letter to the county executive slamming the administration for taking too long to implement the grant program. The letter stated in part:

This lack of urgency is beyond disappointing and directly contradicts the Council’s clear intent to get this funding to our local employers as quickly as possible. While the County’s capacity to help may be limited, our ability to move quickly should not be, especially as the level of government closest to our residents and employers. For the businesses struggling to keep their lights on and for the employees who depend on them, this program is only effective if it can get funds out in time to provide help when it’s desperately needed. Without question, that time is now.

We must move with the urgency that this moment requires because our small businesses and nonprofits are counting on us. The only thing that will help businesses right now is getting them the relief money already approved and appropriated by the Council. We urge you to get the Public Health Emergency Grant Program up and running immediately. We cannot afford to wait for some other support to come first. If we fail to act in time, our local businesses won’t be able to afford to stay open. The County Council stands ready to support your administration however we can.

We reprint the letter below.

Shortly after the letter was written, the administration published a required document list for businesses applying for assistance. (As of this writing, the application itself is not finalized.) The documents include a dizzying array of tax statements, bank statements, interim monthly or quarterly financial statements, corporate articles and invoices and quotes for telework software (if applicable) as well as a requirement that businesses verify their good standing on a state website. Most crucially, the document list states in bold: “You must apply for any applicable State and Federal programs to qualify for County assistance.” It then requires applicants to submit “evidence of application to Federal and/or State COVID-19 assistance programs, including award or denial letters.”

There is no requirement in the legislation passed by the council that applicants for county assistance must first apply for state or federal assistance. The council considered an amendment making county assistance “secondary” to state and federal assistance and allowing it to be used as a “supplement” to such aid but decided against it. This requirement has been added by the administration in direct contradiction of the will of the council.

This requirement is of great consequence. When following the links provided by the executive branch, one quickly sees that two of the state’s assistance programs – the Maryland Small Business COVID-19 Emergency Relief Grant Fund and the Maryland Small Business COVID-19 Emergency Relief Loan Fund – stopped accepting applications on April 6, two days before the administration published its document list. So by the executive branch’s criteria, if a MoCo small business missed the state application window, which was only open for about two weeks, it is disqualified from seeking county assistance.

The county is requiring business assistance applicants to apply to these two state funds but both are shut down.

As for the federal assistance programs, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) is under heavy criticism for not getting money out quickly. Some small businesses report that they have not heard anything from SBA after applying, not even a confirmation email. One of the SBA programs relies on private financial institutions to process applications, and some of them are either not taking applications or limiting them to existing clients. One community bank president even said, “What I thought was a brilliant plan is turning into a quagmire of quicksand.”

MoCo is insisting that its businesses jump down these bottomless state and federal rabbit holes to get county assistance. Again, this requirement simply does not appear in the legislation that the executive branch is charged with implementing.

So which businesses will be best able to navigate the process set up by the administration? Naturally, they will be the ones who are the most financially sophisticated, have the best accountants and have the most familiarity with government business assistance programs. Those who lack those assets – especially those with limited English language skills and less entrepreneurial experience – will be left behind. And so a county that prides itself on progressive values might actually wind up directing assistance disproportionately to the most privileged elements of the business community while the others will face extinction.

It’s not too late for the county to streamline its process. But it has to act fast. As in, NOW.

Share