Ghost Town: Once Vibrant Maryland City Exemplifies Destruction of Longterm Shutdown

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Posted: May 14, 2020 5:20 PM

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced on Wednesday that new cases of the Wuhan coronavirus and rate of infection had slowed to the point that his "Roadmap to Recovery" phase one could begin this Friday. In this early phase, some businesses, gyms, salons, and recreational facilities are permitted to reopen with restrictions meant to limit crowding. 

Hogan put the state on a strict stay-at-home order in place for the entire state on March 31 which included a threat of jail time and fines for those found to be engaged in nonessential travel. Despite heavy criticism and several protests, Hogan stuck to his guns and kept the state on stringent lockdown, even as neighboring states eased up.

Now into the reopen plan, Marylanders may return to their houses of worship, get their hair trimmed, and even stop by their favorite retailers. All of these things will be done under stern limitations, of course, and masks must still be worn by all in retail and foodservice establishments. Restaurants and bars, starving for springtime business, remain limited to pick-up orders and delivery. Total freedom in Maryland, it seems, is still a ways away, particularly for small business owners. 

But while the lifted restrictions and steps back toward normal life should offer a tiny glimmer of hope, despite the severe limitations, the closed-up storefronts, ghostly street markets, and empty sidewalk cafes tell another story. 

A sunny day visit to Maryland's second-largest city, Frederick, about 50 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., showed the utter devastation of the lockdown. The streets of downtown Frederick, spotted with historic homes, landmark storefronts, and bars established just after Prohibition were eerily quiet, peppered with only a few joggers and masked families out for a walk. Frederick County, home to approximately 260,000 people, has seen just 78 deaths attributed to COVID-19

A seasonal farmer's market, which kicked off its season on Sunday and generally attracts hundreds of people, was limited to a handful of booths and a few customers nervously peaking at the selections over their mandatory masks. Vendors at the market said they had done well with pre-orders early in the day, but hadn't seen much traffic. One meat purveyor from nearby Boonsboro said she was mostly preoccupied with bulk orders for her farm which was currently filling order requests for grocers facing supply chain issues. 

Despite this, the farm representatives were hopeful, overall. There was no overwhelming sense of foreboding, as one might expect, instead just one of "wait and see." They had not expected to see many people on their first day back to the city square. This was nothing like previous years, they said. Without the crowd of eager urbanites hunting for the greenest kale and the ripest vegetables, most of the vendors passed time talking to each other. Others read books. Several checked their phones and watches for the moment they could officially pack up and head home. 

A stroll on North Market Street, normally a tourist hotspot jammed with upscale boutiques, specialty shops, and high-end gastropubs, revealed the real cost of the prolonged shutdown. Many of the street-facing storefronts, under the charming glow of the morning sun and spring foliage, sat vacant with temporary "for rent" signs where evidence of healthy business was previously displayed. For them, Hogan's phased reopening came far too late. When the plug was stuffed into the economy and revenue streams instantly dried out, rent due dates, utility bills, vendor contracts, and license renewal payments went on. Some simply couldn't keep up without any business. 

Though the US government approved an unprecedented $700 billion in emergency funding for small businesses, more than 100,000 have closed their doors permanently due to the pandemic shutdowns in the United States. Some shuttered shops on North Market Street specifically cited Governor Hogan, not COVID-19, as the reason they were unable to operate.

Other downtown businesses were able to survive the lockdown by offering limited curbside services, delivery, and pick up. Bushwallers, a popular Irish Pub known for being a packed tap house with bottomless pitchers, standing-room only brunch hours, and above-average pub fare, converted into an ad hoc general store as a way to weather the crises of being essentially closed for business. 

However, on a gorgeous Sunday just after noon, which would normally require a party of four to exercise patience for a midday meal and libation at Bushwallers, only a couple cars pulled up to pick up pre-ordered sundries. 

Like most states entering the reopening process, Maryland's guidelines are less than clear to the normal resident who just wants to go about their day. Some businesses, including a cupcake shop, suggested they were open but kept their doors locked in a confusing attempt to follow the rules. "Just wave," a sign suggested, but no sign of an employee was evident. 

Spring days in the mid-Atlantic are known for their open doors, bustling patios, and welcoming hosts eager to accept your business. The sense of welcome in Frederick was totally absent, replaced only by different signs of apology, promises to reopen, and doors that seemed locked, even if they weren't. 

A staged reopening with multiple phases and vague instructions won't work for Frederick and its patchwork of delicate small businesses and eclectic foot traffic. A review of the current day's rules and regulations will never precede a relaxing spring stroll downtown. Only when the doors are open again and commerce flows will American cities come back to life.