There has been a major shift this week regarding COVID-19. Rather than robust fear and anxiety, I am seeing drastic increases in frustration and impatience as the days mount and livelihoods become increasingly jeopardized. It’s been almost five weeks since the local economy was shut down with the closure of restaurants, bars, real estate and retail stores followed closely by the shuttering of most hotels and other non-essential businesses.
A noticeable rise in tensions has surfaced this week. Not even the injection of some one-time stimulus dollars was enough to stave off criticism and concerns over when the economy will open. Some major venom toward Gov. Larry Hogan has been showing up daily on a Facebook page called “Reopen Maryland.” Organizers of the page are planning a “peaceful protest” in Annapolis on Saturday at noon. Modeled after a similar event in Michigan, protestors will line up in their vehicles “as a unified voice to demand the reopening of our state. Enough is enough,” the Facebook page contends.
At Thursday’s Ocean City Mayor and Council meeting, a sense of urgency was sought by Councilman John Gehrig. Not one to shy away from expressing his opinion, Gehrig was vocal during the meeting, encouraging his colleagues to join him in seeking a plan for getting Ocean City open as soon as safely possible. Gehrig is hoping the resort will improve its messaging through better marketing, reminding visitors Ocean City will soon be ready for you rather than continue with the previous statements to stay away because it’s unsafe.
“I’m not saying let’s open today or tomorrow, but let’s have a plan,” he said. “We have to have a plan for success, but success doesn’t mean the coronavirus is suddenly gone. It’s going to be here. We need to prepare to live with it. Everybody needs to make personal decisions. If you’re at high risk or if you’re afraid, stay home and quarantine. For others, we’re here for you.”
Mayor Rick Meehan agreed with the sentiment to get out front with planning, but indicated it’s still a waiting game to a degree.
“We can manage our population, but those numbers can change dramatically if we open up and suddenly add another 25,000 or 50,000 people to the mix,” Meehan said. “There will be a gradual rollout for recovery, but we don’t want to do that too quickly. We don’t want to lose all of the ground we’ve gained. The worst possible thing is to relax a lot of these things and fall back into an even worse situation.”
What is happening in Ocean City currently is occurring in most tourist locales around the country. For example, in a letter to Dare County Commissioners, Kitty Hawk Kites CEO John Harris reminded his elected officials, “Outer Banks businesses need to open back up at the earliest feasible time and do what business they can. They will still need assistance but at least it will give them a shot at surviving.”
Harris continued, “I’m almost 73. I am aware that opening the Outer Banks may put people in my age bracket at increased risk. But at this point, I have been educated on how to protect myself. It’s up to me to do that. It is up to the restaurants and businesses to put the best policies and practices in place, so that they can protect their employees and their customers. But let’s open those bridges to a trickle of visitors at least. Let’s make the Outer Banks the haven it was for malaria victims in the 1800’s. It is a haven and a place to heal for everyone. Let’s find a way to let our visitors come here to heal in spirit, while providing a way for our tourism industry to endure. It’s a big challenge to balance public safety and our local economy, but we have to find a way to do it. If we don’t, we will suffer the consequences of a lower quality of life.”
The worst thing for the region would be to reopen for a few weeks, record a huge spike in cases due to out-of-towners visiting the shore and then for the state to impose tough restrictions all over again. There’s no guarantee this will happen, but the chances are incident rates will climb when restrictions are lifted. One thing that is known is the state will take a drastic approach if the virus becomes a huge public safety concern once again. When the incidences do jump inevitably, the hope is the health care system will be better prepared now than in March.
Another week should provide enough evidence to confirm Maryland is heading toward the down side of the curve. Once that’s a definite, we need to phase out the restrictions. One official in Annapolis suggested a plan under consideration is a four-month phasing out of restrictions – the first month restaurants will be able to have 25% of their occupancy, following by an increase of 25% increments over the next few months. I think that plan is ridiculous. I sure hope the governor’s intentions are swifter. These sorts of measures amount to living in fear. Once an adequate number of tests are available in the state, I believe a gradual phasing out of the restrictions is proper over weeks not months.
Hogan reported more details will be coming next week on the state’s plan to bring businesses back on line. I hope to see a timeline released. This will provide business owners what they most need right now – hope.