Support and Survival
Pandemic Restrictions Prompt Small Businesses to Organize, Fight Back
In a typical year, the month of March starts Showtime Sound’s busy season with events like corporate galas and award ceremonies. Showtime provides production services such as audio, lighting, video and staging to various tours, concerts, festivals and events. If you’ve been to a concert at The Great Frederick Fair or a Celebrate Frederick event such as the Fourth of July or In The Streets, you’ve seen their work.
But the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the business. State and local health restrictions, designed to limit the virus’s spread, have shut down all large events since last March with start-up dates for these festivities unknown. “It is going to be another rough six months, especially in my business,” says Showtime co-owner Shawn Hocherl. “I am already getting cancelations.”
None of Showtime’s usual events through May are happening and beyond that is a mystery. Because of the cancelations, Hocherl and partner Scott Tydings have not taken a paycheck in months. Before COVID, they had 15 full-time and about 40 part-time employees. They are now down to four.
“I feel like I can’t throw 15 to 16 years of our life down the drain in 10 months because of a pandemic,” Hocherl says. “It is a little rough to take. …We did have some [federal Payment Protection Program] money and a small loan from the [Small Business Administration]. We were appreciative of that. It helped, but it really didn’t help the business end. It kept some guys on but we are really fighting to stay afloat at this point especially going into another winter with really zero income. We are just kind of hanging on by a thread and hoping to make it. I just don’t want to give up.”
Showtime Sound is one of more than a thousand area businesses to join the Bear the Burden Coalition. The group is dedicated to ensuring government regulations are applied to everyone equally.
Hocherl believes that, so far, regulations have not been applied equally. He recently went to a large grocery store and was sad to find the facility packed. “I understand it is a grocery store,” he says. “It is essential. Totally understand that. But as an event person, you go into a [grocery store] or a big box store and you see 500 people in a store and you’re like, ‘Well, why can’t we have a show in a field with 400 to 500 people spaced out?’ There has got to be a safety protocol for us to still stay in business and do work. If a big box store is doing work, what is the difference if we come up with a protocol plan and have us be able to open?”
Last fall, the company created Showtime at the Drive-In at the Frederick Fairgrounds. The six-week series, featuring concerts and movies, had vehicles park at designated spaces and attendees were asked to wear masks and socially distance from others. “We proved we could do a safe event,” Hocherl says. “… We just ask for fairness.”
Danny Farrar, founder of Soliderfit gyms and the nonprofit Platoon 22, started Bear the Burden late last year because he felt small businesses are being held to a different standard than large retailers. “I understand [government officials] have a job to do and they are trying to do it to the best of their ability, but that also doesn’t mean I need to agree with them either,” he says.
Farrar notes during the initial lockdown, small businesses were shut down while big box stores had long lines. “The argument was always, ‘Well, these businesses are essential,’” he says. “Well, I would rebut to that that every business that puts food on someone’s plate is essential.”
Retailers such as Target and Walmart as well as online vendors such as Amazon reported record profits last year while many small businesses went into survival mode and some closed their doors forever. Farrar believes big businesses did not have guidelines enforced on them as strictly as small businesses because they have the legal might to fight restrictions. “I am not anti-large business at all,” he says. “God bless them. Do you. But I am very much against two different sets of rules for people playing the same game.”
As a second wave of the virus sent numbers rising, Farrar and other area business owners feared another lockdown. Thus, Bear the Burden was born. “For me, small business is the backbone of America,” the retired military veteran says. “It is literally the backbone of the thing I fought to defend.”
Bear the Burden has raised more than $30,000 and has retained a Washington, D.C.-based law firm specializing in government regulation. One area the firm is exploring is why Montgomery County approved 26 large retailers for exemptions from capacity limits. “Why were small businesses not afforded the same opportunity?” asks Farrar.
The cover photo of the group’s Facebook page is a statement: “Hope is not a good plan. No one is coming. It is up to us.” During the pandemic, Farrar heard people say residents just needed to be patient and the government would eventually help. “I don’t believe that and I don’t believe that if we didn’t stand up and say something I could very easily have seen Frederick doing a lockdown. For me, it is like you have got to stand up and advocate for yourself.”
Farrar believes businesses should be allowed to remain open with protocols. He understands the lockdowns and regulations are done to save lives and stop the spread of the virus. “I get that, respect it, but there has to be some balance of that with the lives that you destroy by the actions that you take,” he says.
Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner believes the perception that small businesses have been treated unevenly as compared to large retailers goes back to Gov. Larry Hogan’s executive order closures from March to May and ongoing capacity restrictions.
“The capacity limitations and restrictions in place apply to small, medium and large retailers exactly the same,” she says. “Obviously, 50 percent of capacity for a big box-type retailer can be in the hundreds, while smaller retailers with a small footprint would be limited to a small number of shoppers. So, for many months these limitations, established by the governor through executive order, have been the same for every business in the retail category, as well as for every business in many other industry categories. So, the perception that small businesses are being treated differently or have different rules is factually inaccurate.”
Gardner says the perception that enforcement is focused mainly on smaller businesses is also inaccurate. “Since enforcement staff was added around the first of December, the big box retailers are visited regularly, generally daily,” Gardner says. “There is actually greater frequency of visitation from compliance staff to the big box retailers than the smaller retailers. Compliance checks are also responsive to complaints. [Frederick County Health Officer] Dr. [Barbara] Brookmyer and I shared with Danny Farrar and others from Bear the Burden that some of the larger retailers have sent letters of complaint about the level of enforcement.”
The sense of unfairness, in her opinion, comes largely from the fact that business and commerce were never structured to operate around a contagious virus. “So, some of the restrictions and limitations don’t seem to comparatively make sense and are certainly imperfect,” Gardner said. “Unfortunately, some believe from the messaging of the Bear the Burden Coalition that small businesses are closed while the big retailers are fully opened. This is simply wrong. I have received emails and social media messages speaking to small businesses being closed while big box stores are open. The smaller businesses mentioned are actually not closed and have the exact same limitations as the larger businesses in the same business category. The end result has unfortunately been widespread misinformation.”
Gardner has asked Rick Weldon, president and CEO of the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce, to include representatives from Bear the Burden on a business advisory committee to ensure they have a voice. She also meets virtually with business owners to hear how the community has been affected.
“I fully appreciate that businesses are struggling and are not financially viable or sustained at 50 percent of capacity because that is not how they were structured to operate,” she says. “So many businesses that are open are still struggling financially. … There is light at the end of the tunnel with the distribution of the vaccine, though the supply of vaccine is currently very limited. There has been significant business economic support through federal, state and local grants to help businesses survive the economic impacts of the pandemic and to help them thrive again in the future.”
“Without a voice”
Phil Dacey, a Republican member of the Frederick County Council, is proposing the creation of a small business advisory commission. The group would issue an annual report and advise the county executive and council on issues that affect small businesses.
“I am not real big on commissions usually, but, especially with the pandemic and the unprecedented effect it has had on small businesses, I think it is an important group to convene,” Dacey says. “I think it is important that we have something in statute where small businesses have a voice in local government.”
The commission proposal would have to go through several layers of review before a council vote.
Dacey was inspired to propose the commission after a mid-November county Board of Health meeting. The meeting lasted until close to midnight, with additional COVID restrictions approved to take effect the following day. The meeting was open virtually, but Dacey felt residents and business owners should have had the opportunity to make public comments on the proposed changes.
“There were a lot of questions,” he recalls. “Frankly, the draft [restrictions] that came out was not sufficient. The language itself was ambiguous, actually misleading or unclear. It caused mass confusion in Frederick County. At that point, I was thinking what we need is a small business group. … I really think having a standing commission will give those businesses a voice moving forward. We’ve all seen it has been an unprecedented year as far as the freedom to conduct business. I really feel like they have been held without a voice through a lot of this process. This would bring a voice.”
Dacey notes Bear the Burden has organized with a speed and fervor like he has never before seen and been a tremendous advocate for small businesses. “You can’t really judge the value of any particular regulation without weighing the cost and benefit,” he says. “You need to have that cost analysis side and the Bear the Burden Coalition has been the leading group that has been vocal about what the cost side is, making it known that there is benefit to this but there is also a cost and where do we draw that line? To properly draw that line, we need that counterbalancing force.”
“Time to take action”
In looking at her 2020 financials, Nicole Knight, co-owner of Smooch Studio in Downtown Frederick, noted that business was down 37 percent from 2019.
When Farrar recruited members for Bear the Burden, Knight decided to join and become a member of the executive board. “I just knew our voices needed to be heard,” she says. “Numbers are powerful and to come together with other like-minded individuals to have our voices be heard by these public officials who are making seemingly arbitrary and experimental-type decisions and using us as guinea pigs. I just felt there was a huge need for it. If you don’t start doing something about it and letting your voice be heard then you can look outside your front door and your downtown streets will never be the same again. The landscape is quickly changing.”
Knight notes small businesses are more capable and willing on any given day to go above and beyond protocols to make sure their clients and staff are safe. “We build our businesses on relationships and we are accountable to our customers and I would want them to feel safer coming to us than going into a mall or going into a big box store,” she says.
The Machine Gun Nest, an indoor shooting range, was hit hard by the restrictions especially when the business was limited to 25 percent capacity. “We were on the verge of our operational costs exceeding what we could possibly make with our doors open, so we had to shut down a portion of our operations as not to lose money for the hours we were able to be open,” says Rob Knop, CEO.
He also decided to join Bear the Burden and serve on their executive board. “One of the amazing things about America is our ability to be able to gather as a group and make our voices heard because it brings change,” Knop says. “I saw a real need to stand up and be a part of the movement and I think everybody has something they can contribute. … I felt that it was time to take action because these big box stores have been able to continue their operations with almost no limitations due to their size and powerful legal backing. Small businesses like us need a voice. Small businesses by themselves standing up against these unconstitutional and selective shutdowns are silenced but as a large group our voices will be heard.”
A physical therapy practice with an emphasis on athletic recovery, Rehab 2 Perform has five locations, including two in Frederick County and three in Montgomery County. Founder Josh Funk says different restrictions in each jurisdiction can be frustrating. “Everybody has a different set of expectations and guidelines based on what is going on in their county,” he says. With patients coming from throughout the region, he and his staff make sure everyone is informed on best practices and government guidelines.
Funk serves as vice president of Bear the Burden’s executive board. By mobilizing businesses, he hopes this group will last beyond the current pandemic and ideally be a multi-industry organization that supports the best interests of small business. “Any time you lock arms with other businesses your reach, your influence, the power that you have automatically is different than if you are just one,” he says.