Crisis and Community

From Small Businesses to Local Governments, the COVID-19 Crisis Affects Every Corner of Life

By Gina Gallucci-White and Katherine Heerbrandt | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 05.01.20 – Feature, Lifestyles, People & Places

Amid the mostly empty sidewalks of Downtown Frederick, Michelle Schaffer knew she had to pivot. The owner of the North Market Pop Shop had been engaged in expanding her store in early March, but then came the order from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to close all restaurants, bars and other nonessential businesses in the state, with exceptions allowed for carryout, curbside pickup and delivery.

Schaffer knew the store needed a way to continue to serve its soft drinks, milkshakes, candy and other sweet treats, while maintaining healthy physical distance from customers. Noting the two windows next to their store door, she got creative. 

She bought two horizontal-sliding windows at Lowe’s, had crews working on the expansion install them and—voila!—created a safe-and-easy way for customers to order and pick up food from the sidewalk. “We are going to do this as a temporary [solution] and see if it works out so that I know my employees are safe and also the general public has minimal contact with both us and each other,” Schaffer says. 

The store has received positive comments from the community about the windows, especially from dog walkers who normally could not shop inside the store with their four-legged friends. Now, they can easily order and grab a shake or soda while out for a walk. “We’ve had really good response,” Schaffer says. “[Store traffic] is nowhere near what it would be like if we had First Saturday or people wandering about on a beautiful day, but we definitely have some people come back on a regular basis. … We are trying lots of new things just to try to make sure we can still be here and that there is a little bit of fun for Downtown Frederick, too.”

Throughout Frederick County, it was the time that wasn’t—when normal went abnormal, when city streets and country roads turned nearly vacant, when “social distancing” became standard operating procedure, when many businesses shuttered and employees stayed home, when cases of toilet paper were grabbed by masked shoppers, when almost every aspect of daily life changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

BUSINESS MATTERS

Within days of the state-ordered shutdown, concerns rippled through the local economy. Businesses that were temporarily closed could not pay employees, who, in turn, could not pay other local businesses for their goods and services. In response, many local businesses applied for federal emergency funds or, like the North Market Pop Shop, adapted. Restaurants that once were strictly dine-in only moved to carryout and curbside service, even providing drinks to go.

Local distillers like Tenth Ward Distilling Company began making hand sanitizer and surface disinfectant to help. Cleaners were among the first items to disappear from store shelves when COVID-19 cases began being reported, leading to shortages in critical care spaces. 

Before the shutdowns began, Tenth Ward began handing out small bottles of hand sanitizer for its customers because they had the materials on hand. Owner Monica Pearce notes she then started getting orders for gallons of sanitizer and other types of cleaning products. “We decided surface disinfectant was just as much in demand but more cost-effective for us, so we ended up going that route,” she says. 

Since the beginning of April, Tenth Ward has been donating an ethanol-based surface disinfectant to medical facilities and other essential businesses and organizations such as fire and police departments and government offices. “We had the capability to do this,” Pearce says. “I could not imagine saying no to helping out. Being a part of the community is a huge mission of ours. We are a very active distillery, not just in our industry but also in the Frederick community. Being able to help out our people that are always supporting us was something we wanted to do.”

Funeral homes are facing one of the most challenging aspects of social distancing during the pandemic—allowing families the ability to grieve and honor their loved one. Under the state order, funeral homes must strictly enforce the maximum gathering size of no more than 10 people, which means a clergy member, a funeral director and up to eight family members and friends. 

“Some families are choosing these small, private graveside-only services while others are choosing cremation for their loved one,” says Courtney Stauffer, director of marketing at Stauffer Funeral Homes. “Many of the families we are serving are choosing to plan a celebration of life service at a later date so that friends and family can connect to share stories and remember their loved one together after this pandemic has passed.”

Despite the daily and weekly changes, Stauffer notes the staff has kept the focus on the needs of families. “As funeral directors, we are heartbroken that these already grieving families are having to make additionally tough decisions but we are doing our best to guide them with compassion and understanding during this unprecedented time.”

Marlene England, owner of Curious Iguana and Dancing Bear Toys and Gifts, has seen patrons ordering products to pass the time while social distancing. “Puzzles have been popular at both stores,” she says. At Dancing Bear, “we’ve seen an increase in craft kits, science activities and workbooks. At the Iguana, books across all genres are selling well—even books about pandemics.”

Both stores have offered curbside pickup, local deliveries and shipping during the crisis. Their marketing and events manager had to fortify their websites to allow more online ordering and adding new stock every week. “We know our customers pretty well and we were confident they’d be needing a lot of books and toys to get them through this pandemic,” England says. 

Noting the experience has been a bit of a whirlwind, England says, “The good thing about being a small business is that you can turn on a dime. Our concern from the get-go was how could we stay viable and relevant and still connect with our customers in the midst of all this chaos.”

The community has stepped up to help the two stores by calling and emailing staff to see how they are and putting in many orders. “We can’t say enough good things about our customers,” England says. “… They’re happy that they can still shop with us and they’re relieved when we assure them we’re not going anywhere. We have the most amazing customers and their support at this stressful time has meant so much to us.”

GOVERNMENTS, NONPROFITS ADAPT

In response to COVID-19, local government staffs have had to be flexible, quick and resourceful—from reconfiguring official websites and providing timely updates, to restructuring elections, redirecting resources and efforts to support those in need and adjusting to rotating work schedules and teleworking.

“Public health is a community responsibility,” County Executive Jan Gardner says. “It is up to each and every one of us to do our part to protect the health of our family, community, and our healthcare workers. It is our civic duty to stay home, practice social distancing when we must go out and to practice good hygiene at all times.” 

Frederick County leaders receive regular updates from the recently formed Joint Information Center, which represents 20 county agencies and partners. They also participate in weekly conference calls with Gardner, who is in weekly contact with Gov. Hogan and his staff. (The public can access daily updates from the Joint Information Center via text and email. Nearly 7,000 residents have signed up for the updates by texting the keyword FredCoVID19 to 888777.)

“Most of every single day is devoted to collaboration, problem solving and communication. I am in regular contact with our government and nonprofit partners with a focus on protecting public health,” Gardner says. 

The City of Frederick has beefed up its website with frequent updates and links to county, state and federal information, as well as using social media channels, email- and text-alert systems, newspaper editorials and weekly mayoral briefings each Wednesday that are streamed online and on local TV. “We have also increased the amount of material available for those in our community who speak Spanish and [American Sign Language],” says Mayor Michael O’Connor.

O’Connor has maintained connections with the governor’s office, Maryland Municipal League members and the Metro Washington Council of Governments. “In addition to local agencies, we are strategizing care of the most vulnerable in our community with our community nonprofits,” O’Connor says.

Concern for nonprofits comes as many fear that already-lean organizations will face a double whammy of decreasing charitable donations during a time when the demand for services will increase. In response, both the United Way of Frederick County and the Community Foundation of Frederick County established funds to support nonprofits during this difficult time. And the nonprofits themselves have had to prove themselves nimble by moving their services online or providing COVID-specific community support.

The Frederick County chapter of Project Linus switched from making blankets for children in need to masks and headbands for the medical community. Chapter coordinator Lisa Kimble realized in January that hospitals, nursing homes and other medical facilities would probably run short on medical supplies so she sent out a message on the group’s Facebook page asking for help. 

With a clinical background, she got a pattern formally approved through a local medical agency and around 50 volunteers have created more than 3,000 masks and 100 headbands for donation. “It just absolutely warms my heart,” Kimble says. “Frederick is such an amazing community and I think when it really comes down to it, everyone jumps in. … I have gotten a lot of thank-yous. It is overwhelming. They are very thankful. It’s just such an extraordinary thing we are all having to go through and as a community we have all pulled together to help.” 

The county’s small towns are also focusing their operations to changing times, providing information to residents through websites and social media, and often taking their lead from the county and state. “Maryland has been a leader in the fight against this virus from the beginning and in every way possible,” says Middletown Burgess John Miller. “I have nothing but very positive things to say about our county executive and our governor.”

MEETING WHEN YOU CAN’T MEET 

Many residents began self-isolation at home beginning in mid-March with the official stay-at-home order being put into effect by Hogan on March 30. These circumstances lead to many businesses and organization to create new ways to reach their audiences. 

FCF Church had already been live streaming its Sunday services for about a decade as a way to bring services to those who could not get to their facility. When the pandemic reached the area, the church began pre-recording components of its service during the week of and compiling the footage together to stream through Facebook and YouTube. “It plays as though it were live, even though it is not actually live,” says Thomas Pentony, associate pastor. “… It has been an adjustment for some of the team members to communicate to a camera rather than to a live audience. Despite the challenges, we have had a lot of participation from the church on the services.”

On an average, normal Sunday, the non-denominational church hosts about 1,700 people with between 150 to 200 watching the stream. Since going online only, about 1,500 devices have been logging in to see the services.

Pentony notes not being able to get together around the Easter holiday was particular disappointing. “That is obviously one of the highlights of the year,” he says. “We usually see about roughly 2,500 people attending on our Easter morning services. It is a time of celebration for our community and not being able to celebrate that together is certainly disappointing and everybody is looking forward to that first service when we are all finally able to come back together. Nonetheless, we are all making the most of it and staying very connected through social media platforms and digitally.” 

One recent refrain has been that church is not just a building. “The word church was a translation from a Greek word that meant assembly or gathering of people, so church has always been a reference to the community of God’s people,” Pentony says. “It has always been people and not a building. That is something we have been reinforcing with our people. …We continue to be FCF Church as long as there are people that consider themselves part of the community that is FCF Church, whether we are able to meet in a building or not.”

Instead of meeting at their Walkersville studio, Fusion Fitness and Dance has been offering students regular classes through the video teleconferencing website Zoom. “I knew there had to be another way,” says Jen Ringer, studio owner. “We will always dance through the rain. There is not a choice of stopping our dance ever. We just went for it. … I knew it wasn’t going to be the same but we can still enrich what they have already learned. We could connect them to friends. We are all about building confidence, creativity and community. When we cannot meet, community does not have to end. We could provide that connection to them to see their friends in their dance community.”

Fitness, recital and recreational dance classes still meet at their previously scheduled time before the pandemic occurred. Ringer received many compliments from parents because the continuation of classes brought some normalcy to the students’ lives. “I feel like this is so great that we can provide that and it is something for them to look forward to every week while they are at home,” she says. “It helps them think critically, learn self-motivation and they learn how to analyze their movement in a different way.”

CULTURE CONTINUES

Being stuck at home, many people have been looking for ways to pass the time in an enriching way. Frederick County Public Schools’ Earth and Space Science Laboratory has offered twice-a-week Facebook Live events, while Monocacy National Battlefield has been using the platform to offer a series discussing Civil War topics. 

Frederick County Public Libraries has also been providing daily story times at 10 a.m. for children ages 6 years old and younger, featuring librarians from its nine different branches. The library is also hosting a daily 8 p.m. reading of Treasure Island for older children and adults.

“We thought it would be a great way to provide a service to our families who might be missing us,” says Janet Vogel, Youth Services manager for the library. Also offered are educational programming of various topics at noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “We want to make sure that the programming that we offer is valuable, not just adding some additional noise, so [we are] really trying to create connections between our community and our libraries and between our community members and others.” 

The library also expanded its catalog of online resources. Two of its most popular online resources, Libby by Overdrive and Hoopla, offer e-books, digital audio books and magazines. “Typically we have allowed 10 checkouts per month from Hoopla but during this time we have increased it from 10 to 30 a month,” says Teresa Vorce, materials manager. For those without a library card, a temporary card is available that allows access to most online resources from home. 

Children can use several different platforms for online resources, including animated storybooks, science lessons and social studies discussions. Adults can take online courses featuring a wide variety of topics, including cooking, drawing and learning a different language through different platforms. Ancestory.com has been offered inside the library branch computers but is now available digitally at home. “Use of our digital resources has definitely gone up since we’ve been closed,” Vorce says. “I have been getting very positive comments from people through our website who are saying they really appreciate having all this access.” 

SHIFTING FOCUS

With public meetings canceled or conducted virtually, the daily work of local government has slowed some aspects and shifted in others, with an emphasis on providing essential services. In Middletown, municipal elections were moved from April 6 to April 24 to accommodate an election now conducted via mail. Every eligible voter received an absentee ballot, and participation was up significantly, Burgess Miller says. “I am very pleased with this result so far and I expect this could be a trend we see becoming part of the new normal in the months and years to come,” he says, crediting town staff with the success.

County legislative initiatives and decisions that require a public hearing are on hold, and some new projects that have not started will be deferred but not canceled, according to County Executive Gardner.

The county has been busy setting up isolation and quarantine shelter for healthcare workers and first responders. It is also working with nonprofits to expand food delivery to seniors. “We are tracking all the costs directly associated with our emergency response. I anticipate that the county will be reimbursed by the federal government for many of the costs we incur based on the CARE Act that recently was passed by Congress,” Gardner says.

The biggest challenge facing the county is procuring personal protective equipment for frontline healthcare workers, she says.

Another important challenge is getting people back to work. “The transition back to ‘normal’ life will be a new experience for all of us and social distancing is likely to be ongoing,” Gardner says. “The long-term uncertainty has caused stress and anxiety and the long-term mental health of people on the front line and people who have been isolated for weeks will need to be addressed.” 

Frederick Mayor O’Connor echoes concerns about the challenges facing the local economy in the near future, but right now, he says, the priority is the life, health and safety of residents and the community. “However, after the immediate health risk is lessened, the real understanding of the economic impact will be more apparent. This includes the economic impact to the city, the impact to our residents, the impact to our business owners, our tourism, and more,” he says.