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Arrest of CNN crew in Minneapolis violates most basic tenet of press freedom

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The arrest of CNN reporter Omar Jimenez and his crew on live television this morning simply for reporting on the protests of police violence in Minneapolis violates the most basic tenet of press freedom: the necessity of reporting what are at times uncomfortable truths for government authorities. The government possesses enormous coercive power, that as this episode clearly shows, can be all too easily applied to limit or prevent the press from reporting on their actions. The First Amendment exists precisely for this reason.

The arrest of Jimenez even underscores the reasons for the protests he was covering. No one has been arrested in the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. But Jimenez, who like Floyd is black, has been arrested. There was even another CNN crew near Jimenez at the time of his arrest, but Josh Campbell and his producers were, according to Campbell, “treated much differently,” and were obviously not arrested.

Today we speak with one voice. The following is a statement from Laura Bassett, John Stanton, and Nick Charles for the Save Journalism Project:

Omar Jimenez was arrested for doing his job, accurately reporting to the American people what is happening during an ongoing crisis. He was arrested for reporting on the protests of the killing of George Floyd–an unarmed black man–by Minneapolis police while being black himself. The job of journalists is ‘to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ In these times of multiple ongoing crises, the American people need journalists to fight hard to hold government officials accountable. Reporters should not just blithely accept their words as truth or we’re never going to have meaningful societal change and progress. And the American people need to have their back.

Daniel Medinger | Publisher | The Business Monthly

Unemployment spikes as businesses prepare to reopen

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With unemployment nationally continuing to grow, Maryland is doing better than many states.

According to WalletHub, a Washington, DC-based personal finance website, the Coronavirus pandemic has eliminated nearly 39 million jobs nationally since mid-March.

In total, 14.7 percent of Americans were unemployed as of April 2020, compared to around 25 percent during the Great Depression.

The good news is that many of these job losses appear to be largely short-term, and Maryland appears to be affected less severely than other states.

Comparing states with the biggest increases in unemployment, WalletHub ranked Maryland 45th, with an April 2020 unemployment rate of 10.1 percent. That reflects a 194.8 percent growth in unemployment compared with the same month in 2019, and a 163.5 percent growth in unemployment since January 2020.

The Old Line State’s numbers are healthier than Virginia’s, currently ranked 33rd with 10.8 percent unemployment.

Nevada, the top ranked state, now experiences a nearly 30 percent unemployment rate, a 608 percent increase compared with last April and 609 percent compared with January 2020.

Claims Soar

In terms of states seeing the biggest increases in unemployment claims due to the Coronavirus, Maryland ranked 14th during the week of May 13th and 23rd in terms of the states that have been most affected since the start of the COVID-19 crisis.

Still, that’s a nearly 1,165 percent increase in unemployment claims during the second week in May compared to the same week in 2019.

According to the Maryland Department of Labor, the state’s enviable unemployment rate of 3.3 percent in March 2020 shot up to 9.9 percent only one month later.

According to the Howard County Economic Development Authority, more than 28,200 county residents had filed for unemployment insurance or pandemic unemployment assistance since March 7.

More than 57,000 Anne Arundel County residents filed for unemployment benefits during the same period.

Surprisingly, despite its focus on technology and cybersecurity, Maryland only ranked 19th on WalletHub’s listing of states providing the best conditions for working from home.

With a high population of military and defense contractors and government agency workers, restrictions pertaining to classified information may play some role in the ability to work from home, but, for obvious reasons, that remains speculative.

Commercial Nosedive

Delta Associates, a research firm focused on the commercial real estate industry, noted in its April 27 Baltimore Metro Area market report that 2020 began with a strong first quarter, but rent growth and absorption is expected to turn sharply negative with vacancies increasing in most submarkets in the period ahead as demand collapses.

“Over the longer term, we believe that the current pandemic will cause office owners, developers, and users to rethink how they provide and consume space,” the report stated. “For tenants, we believe the ongoing – but slowing – shift to dense, open work spaces will either reverse or come to a halt. However, this will probably have a limited effect on occupancy since it may be offset by a marked increase in teleworking.”

The report went on to state that the expansion pace of coworking in the Baltimore Metro Area has been relatively slow and is expected to be even slower in the future if it continues at all.

Pivot Plan

As for businesses themselves, many will require a COVID-19 Pivot Plan to implement a restart as the state enters Stage One of Gov. Larry Hogan’s Roadmap to Recovery.

Mark Kleinschmidt, president and CEO of the Anne Arundel Chamber of Commerce, led an online discussion in April focused on strategies that businesses can use to make the transition less painful.

“The biggest thing impacting businesses is clearly cash flow,” Kleinschmidt said, adding that it will be hard to predict the operating revenue that businesses will be able to realize once they reopen as a result of social distancing requirements and other limitations on businesses.

Decisions on whether to open schools in September or delay their opening will also impact employees and customers, he said.

Businesses that rely on seasonal traffic will also have challenges that year-round businesses don’t contend with, Kleinschmidt said, adding that the Chamber has developed a seven-step COVID-19 Cash Flow Triage process that is available for businesses on its website.

“We’re building a bridge to the new normal, and that’s going to be a very challenging time period,” he said, as businesses begin to get their finances in order and gain a better understanding of new safety standards and regulations.

Some companies might have to brainstorm new products and services to stay relevant, Kleinschmidt said, or consider doing things differently to generate new sources of revenue.

“This is a great time to do a digital audit … and think differently about how you’ve used social media,” he suggested. “The other thing is to look for is best practices … to make customers feel safe. A company like Disney will show us ways to do it that will not be threatening and maybe even somewhat entertaining.”

One of the biggest concerns on the other side will be staffing levels.

“You may be looking at layoffs or maybe not bringing people back … and some employees may have found other opportunities,” Kleinschmidt said, adding that legal representation and insurance coverage are areas that shouldn’t be overlooked.

“Seek out partners to expand your market and potentially lower costs … and put together a pivot plan,” he said. “We are truly moving into uncharted water and plans are everything.”

By George Berkheimer | Senior Writer | The Business Monthly

NewWave launches Onyx

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Elkridge-based NewWave Telecom and Technologies Inc., announced the launch of Onyx Technology, a subsidiary focused on providing health plans with the products and services needed to support health care data interoperability in the emergent era of Fast Healthcare Interoperable Resources (FHIR) standards.

“NewWave has supported the CMS mission to deliver the Blue Button 2.0 API that provides health information access to 53 million Medicare beneficiaries,” said Patrick Munis, founder and CEO of NewWave. “With the new CMS and ONC data sharing rules, every health plan will have to make their data interoperable. We took our deep competencies with FHIR and data sharing and created Onyx, solely dedicated to providing customers interoperable systems that meet the federal mandates and the demands of future information sharing. We are very excited to be leaders of this transformational change.”

Onyx is bringing to market SAFHIR, a cloud-first platform built to meet the demands of the health plans. This platform enables secure connections between payers and patients and is the product of the lessons learned by NewWave from building the Blue Button 2.0 service for Medicare.

Onyx will be led by veteran CEO Susheel Ladwa. Ladwa previously led IBM’s Healthcare and Life Science cloud application innovation business among other healthcare innovation executive roles. He is a contributing member of LeadingAge’s Center for Aging Services Technology (CAST) and chairs the American Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) IT Working Group.

“Onyx will be a forerunner in changing how the American health care system uses data,” said Ladwa. “The pandemic has only increased the urgency of our mission. We are here at the beginning of this significant change.”

‘Feeding the 5,000’ Campaign launched in Howard

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Feed Howard County has launched the Feed the 5,000 campaign with the goal of providing 5,000 (or more) meals to families in need in Howard County by July 4. The program is designed to work with local restaurants to provide healthy meals to those in need and is an initiative in cooperation with the Howard County Community Organizations Active in Disaster, county and state officials and other regional nonprofits.

The Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation has joined the effort as a sponsor of the program and will act as the fiscal sponsor of the program and will manage all incoming donations.

The Feed Howard County program raises funds ― and uses those funds to buy nutritious meals from local restaurants who are struggling to stay open during these challenging times. Donations serve a three-fold purpose: helping families in need, helping local restaurants to stay open and helping their employees.

“These are unprecedented times, the need is great and isn’t likely to decrease anytime soon,” said the organizer, Pat Curran of Feed Howard County. “We have set an aggressive goal of providing 5,000 meals and I am confident that with hard work and the generosity of our community we can surpass that goal and help the many in need.”

To donate visit www.ripkenfoundation.org/donate.

To learn more about Feed Howard County, visit the program on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Terrapin Adventures reopens May 30

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Terrapin Adventures, in conjunction with Savage Mill and approval from Howard County, will reopen to the public, in a limited capacity, starting on Saturday, May 30.

The destination has adapted operations as the world continues to ​address COVID-19​ with three packages with obstacles to climb over and traverse through. They are accessible via the Adventure Park Pass, Thrill Pass and Terrapin Explorer Kids Pass.

 

Ball announces Phase One reopening updates  

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Howard County Executive Calvin Ball announced the lifting of additional restrictions for retail, barbers and hair salons, as well as religious institutions. According to Ball’s Executive Order, effective Friday, May 29 at 7 a.m., retail, barber and hair salons will be able to operate at 50 percent maximum capacity with additional guidance specific to each industry.

Religious institutions and gatherings will be permitted to hold outdoor services up to 250 people. Comprehensive guidelines for each industry are detailed in the Executive Order, additional interpretative guidance will be available to businesses this week.

“On May 13 when Governor Hogan announced that many decisions regarding reopening would be delegated to local jurisdictions, I made the difficult decision to keep certain restrictions in Howard County. At the time, our data showed we weren’t ready to go as far as the Governor’s Order,” said Ball. “After the Governor’s announcement we released HoCo RISE, our framework outlining the metrics we track to make decisions on how Howard County will reopen innovatively, safely, and effectively. Since announcing HoCo RISE, our metrics are showing some promising trends and we’ve made progress on the building blocks for reopening, including a lower ICU and ventilator utilization rate, a lower daily average of new cases, and an increase in our contact tracing operation.”

“After spiking to 78.8 percent on May 15, the ICU utilization rate at Howard County General Hospital has fallen or stayed the same for 7 of 14 days, and as of May 23 was at its lowest level since April 1. The ventilator utilization rate for the same time period is 18.6 percent. The average daily case count, which is expected to rise as testing becomes more available, is down to an average of 27 cases per day after surging to an average of 33 cases for the two-week period that started on April 26. Lastly, Howard County has increased the number of contact tracers from two people when the pandemic started to 35,” Ball said.

“Howard County has been working with our partners in the community, neighboring jurisdictions, and at the State level to flatten the curve of COVID-19,” said Mike Hinson, Director of the Office of Emergency Management. “Between County efforts and the assistance of these partners we have procured nearly half a million pieces of personal protective equipment and supplies. We also have over a million more pieces on order.  Additionally, we continue to monitor emerging solutions and utilize new technologies as they become available in our ongoing fight against COVID-19.”

Beginning at 7 a.m. on Friday, May 29:

  • Retailers in Howard County may open at 50 percent of maximum occupancy.
  • Retailers are still encouraged to use curbside pick-up whenever possible.
  • Barbers and hair salons may open at 50 percent of maximum occupancy including staff.
  • Businesses must continue to operate by appointment only.
  • Staff and clients must wear masks.
  • Religious institutions may hold outdoor services of up to 250 people, as long as all participants can maintain appropriate physical distancing of 6 feet.
  • Indoor services are still limited to a maximum of 10 people.

The Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services has provided guidelines for businesses to determine their maximum occupancy to assist during the COVID-19 pandemic. All retail stores must post signage at or near the front door reminding customers to wear masks and maintain physical distancing. Howard County will provide signs digitally that business owners can print and display in their businesses.

“Over 80 percent of our businesses have fewer than 20 employees, so this pandemic has affected a majority of our business community,” said Larry Twele, Howard County Economic Development Authority CEO. “This next phase allows most of our small business owners to re-open their doors, bring back their employees and begin to serve their customers. We are encouraged that we continue to make progress as a community and are able to take this next step towards economic recovery.”

Fort Meade’s Mapes Road-Route 175 to open June 1

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Fort Meade Garrison Commander Col. Erich Spragg and Command Sergeant Major Michael Behnkendorf will be joined by Congressman C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman and Maryland State Senator Pam Beidle, and others, as they mark the opening of the new access control point at Mapes Road and Maryland Route 175 on Monday, June 1.

The ceremony officially opens the new entrance which features two wider traffic entrance lanes, which expand to three lanes once motorists are through the gate and a snaking configuration to ease the amount of traffic left waiting on Route 175. Exiting the installation, there will be two lanes leading up to the guardhouse that expand to four ― two turning left, one going straight and one turning right.

The $15 million military construction project was completed by the Army Corps of Engineers and built in tandem with the Maryland State Highway Administration. The gate will be open to regular traffic on June 1 at 2:30 p.m.

Once open, the Mapes/175 gate will become the installation’s primary 24/7 access control point, taking over for the Reece Road access control point. The Reece Road access control point will now be open from 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Friday and closed on weekends.

Howard school board postpones budget approval

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The Howard County Board of Education has postponed adoption of the fiscal 21 Operating and Capital Budget and fiscal 22-26 Capital Improvement Program, previously scheduled on May 28, to Thursday, June 11, at 3 p.m.

The board has now scheduled a closed session at 3 p.m. on Thursday, May 28. The meeting will begin in open session before the Board makes a motion to meet in closed session. The board will return to open session for the regularly scheduled board meeting at 4 p.m. A second Closed Session will commence immediately following the board meeting. The board will not return to open session following the second closed session.

All sessions will be held virtually. For more information, contact khanks@hcpss.org.

 

Businesses struggle with gradual reopening

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Stage One of Governor Larry Hogan’s Roadmap to Recovery took effect on May 15, moving Maryland residents from a Stay at Home order to a Safer at Home public health advisory. Under Stage One, retail, manufacturing, houses of worship and some personal services are permitted to reopen with strict limitations.

“I want to assure every Marylander who may feel uneasy, and anyone who is concerned that we are moving either too quickly or too slowly, that each and every decision we make is both fact-based and science based and made only after extensive consultation with our expert Coronavirus Recovery Team,” Hogan said.

As of May 21, the decision to partially reopen under Stage One was still in effect for Anne Arundel and Howard Counties, with salons and barbershops operating by appointment only and allowing only one customer on the premises at a time. Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, which registered higher numbers of cases, had decided to continue under stay-at-home restrictions.

Under executive orders issued by Howard County Executive Calvin Ball and Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, specific retail businesses that principally sell goods were permitted to reopen but were restricted to curbside pickup or delivery service. Religious services were permitted with 10 or fewer people in attendance, preferably outdoors.

Liability Questions

Across the state, trade associations and business organizations expressed gratitude that some of their members struggling to stay afloat could begin returning to business.

While grateful that some business operations could resume, Christine Ross, president and CEO of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, expressed concern over different jurisdictions operating under different rules simultaneously.

“This patchwork approach could prove detrimental for employers and their employees who are already in the midst of navigating a difficult and evolving crisis,” she said.

As companies begin to reopen, many are concerned about employer liability and facilities, said Leonardo McClarty, president and CEO of the Howard County Chamber.

“They’re wondering how to demonstrate that they’ve taken full precautions to protect themselves, their customers and vendors,” he said. “Another concern is the added cost to retrofit businesses [for safety enhancements] and purchasing personal protective equipment. Many small businesses don’t have the money to do these things.”

Chamber members appreciate the measured approach that the governor and the counties are taking, “but while some of the 50 percent capacity and other customer limitations are good for health, it does not help the business revenue wise,” McClarty said. “There have

also been concerns that some retailers, especially big box or national names, have gotten preferential treatment.”

Guidance Needed

Kristi Simon, president of the Central Maryland Chamber (CMC), said some of her organization’s members are seeking guidance on how to handle employees who are refusing to come back to work for health concerns.

“They want to know if there will be government support to help them afford the new safety mandates that have been put into place,” she said. “With state and county guidance rolling out quickly, it’s a rush to find answers, and the solutions don’t work for all businesses.”

Unfortunately, Simon said, several CMC members made the difficult decision to close their doors.

“We’ve also continued adding members over the past few months, who need our services and assistance and look to us as a resource. Entrepreneurs are starting new businesses or transitioning operations to focus on something vastly different than what they were working on before the pandemic,” she said. “Most are just trying to hold off on making difficult decisions until they have a plan … or receive funding to keep them afloat.”

Capacity Issues

At the Laurel Board of Trade, Jim Cross, who serves as chairman, said restaurant business is down 50 to 60 percent in the city despite takeout service, and even the city’s Lowe’s hardware store has seen a 60 percent reduction in business.

“They don’t even have any lumber on the shelves,” Cross said. “People are still doing home repairs and tradesmen are active, but things are really tight. Everybody is hanging on by their fingernails, hoping we’ll get something moving again soon.”

The Board of Trade itself was unable to host its annual Main Street Festival in May, its primary source of funds aside from membership dues, and is uncertain if the event will be able take place in September or October before the weather prevents it.

“We’re a 501(c)6 organization,” Cross said. “Non-profits can apply to get loans, but we’re not able to at this point.”

Maureen Rogers, the Board of Trade’s administrative assistant, is also the artistic director for the Laurel Mills Playhouse.

“We don’t think we’re going to be able to open even in the next couple of recovery phases,” she said. “The arts are going to take a big hit, and even if we’re operating at 25 percent capacity for social spacing requirements, that’s not enough.”

The more drastic capacity restrictions for hair salons and barbershops don’t make sense from a functional standpoint either, said Simon.

“For a large salon, having one client with one technician doesn’t support the overhead to keep the lights on with the rest of the staff out of work,” she said. “If it’s possible for businesses to operate using proper safety techniques and recommended distancing, they should have the opportunity to do so.”

By George Berkheimer | Senior Writer | The Business Monthly

Budget amendments could rescind recordation tax hike

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Ahead of a looming budget vote, three Howard County Councilmembers filed legislative amendments that would trim more than $90 million from the capital budget and $21 million from the operating budget.

On the operating side, the cuts stemming largely from unfilled personnel costs and reduced contractual services would make the county’s recordation tax increase sponsored by Councilmembers Christiana Rigby (D-Dist. 3) and Opel Jones (D-Dist. 2) unnecessary.

Council Chair Deb Jung (D-Dist. 4) and Councilmembers Liz Walsh (D-Dist. 1) and David Yungmann (R-Dist. 5) introduced the amendments one week before the Council’s scheduled budget vote.

Rigby and Jones favored changing the county’s recordation tax from a flat rate of $2.50 per $500 of sale price to a progressive, tiered structure.

Under that proposed structure, the county would charge $2 on each $500 up to $250,000; $5 for the $250,001 to $500,000 tier; $8 for the $500,001 to $1 million tier; and $11 for properties exceeding $1 million.

Capital Reductions

Yungman, Jung and Walsh proposed reducing capital funding for some projects by half or slightly more.

Among the larger reductions are: $4 million for systematic facility improvements; $3.6 million in Pay-Go funding for road resurfacing; $1.5 million for Detention Center renovations; $1.1 million for police station revitalization; and $1 million each for technology infrastructure, public safety enhancements, and the sidewalk repair program.

By far the largest funding adjustment is a $61.6 million reduction in bond funding for the proposed Downtown Columbia Cultural Arts Center.

“That’s a lot of money in a year when we’ve got more than 26,000 people unemployed and we know we’re going to have decreased income tax revenues,” said Jung.

Moreover, she said, the Center’s current design has changed drastically since conception and would now require nearly $4 million in operating costs as a facility run by the Department of Recreation and Parks.

“I don’t think most people realize the full financial picture of what it will take to ultimately get this Cultural Center built and managed,” Jung said.

Pushing the project back a year would give the council more time to become informed about the Center, she added, and might make it more affordable in the long run.

Unintended Consequences

During a May 18 virtual public hearing, the only support for the recordation and transfer tax measures came from the Howard County Board of Education (BOE) and the PTA Council of Howard County.

“I’m just happy to see there is an increase as opposed to no increase or a cut,” said Mavis Ellis, BOE Chair.

Yet while 25 percent of the transfer tax is earmarked for Howard County Public School System capital projects, there is no guarantee that even a portion of recordation tax revenue would necessarily find its way to the school system.

Many in the development and real estate industries argued that the measures could unintentionally harm the county in the long term.

Bruce Harvey, president of Williamsburg Homes, said small county-based developers would incur the tax on indemnity deeds of trust, while larger multi-state developers could borrow against properties outside of Maryland to avoid the same tax.

“This … would increase our building costs by 1.7 percent, and a $20 million office building would increase by $340,000,” said Larry Maykrantz, president of St. John Properties. “[That] cost is ultimately passed down … and would increase our tenants’ rent by 1.7 percent. It’s very important to keep in mind that 90 percent of our tenants are small businesses.”

The higher tax rate could also adversely affect the investment returns generated by large-scale commercial developers.

“I’m going to have a hard time attracting pension and retirement funds that are investing in us instead of investing in the market,” said David Finch, general counsel for Columbia-based Corporate Office Properties Trust.

Difference of Opinion

In its response, the Streets for All Coalition advocating for complete streets in Howard County termed the budget amendments “draconian.”

“The cuts include nearly $4.5 million in funding for projects to improve bike and pedestrian infrastructure, more than half the funding requested by [the] County Executive,” the Coalition wrote in a statement issued by The Horizon Foundation. “[P]roposed cuts to road resurfacing projects that are critical for bike improvements bring the total number of cuts to our infrastructure to $9 million.”

Yungmann, however, said the amendment’s sponsors were careful not to cut anything that would make it harder to provide services during the pandemic response.

“A lot of money we took out was leftover money from prior appropriations … and there were very few capital projects that are ready to advance that we [targeted for cuts],” he said. “People are going to act like we dug really deep and created austerity, we didn’t.”

Councilwoman Rigby did not respond to The Business Monthly’s request for comment on this story.

“Mr. Yungmann, Ms. Walsh and I … are aligned in thinking we really need to take a fiscally conservative outlook this coming year and not base a balanced budget on speculative revenues,” Jung said. “Listings in the month of April were down 45 percent, and that’s as much as we have to go on right now. I think the better part of valor this year is to be safe rather than sorry.”

By George Berkheimer | Senior Writer | The Business Monthly

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