At the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, sales at Frederick’s Curious Iguana bookstore dropped by 65 percent.
But with help from the federal Payroll Protection Program, owner Marlene England was able to keep her entire staff on the payroll.
Even if there was no work for them at the store, England managed to pay her employees and avoid losing them to other jobs.
On Tuesday, England’s store on North Market Street was among businesses that got a visit from Congressman David Trone (D-Md.-6th) and County Executive Jan Gardner. Another stop on the tour was Dancing Bear Toys and Gifts around the corner on East Patrick Street, which England and her husband, Tom, also own.
Trone was in town to promote the benefits of the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion relief package recently passed by Congress.
If it wasn’t for the Payroll Protection Plan money, there’s a good chance neither store would still be there, Tom England told Trone.
“It was a lifesaver, it really was,” he said.
Earlier, Trone led a roundtable discussion with community leaders to discuss the pandemic’s impacts on their areas of responsibility and the help that the American Rescue Plan can provide.
The plan is comprehensive, equal to about 40 percent of the U.S. budget, and will deliver major changes to America’s social fabric that haven’t been seen since the days of Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society in the 1960s, Trone said.
“But we haven’t seen suffering like this, either,” he said.
While the plan’s impact on the national deficit is a concern, Trone is hopes it will eliminate the need for another relief package later on.
Congress plans to get through the summer and see where the COVID numbers are then to see if more help is necessary.
“This takes precedence over everything,” he said.
He stressed the plan’s impact on small businesses in areas like Frederick, where those businesses are facing a treacherous future.
“They’re really living one week from the end,” Trone said.
The pandemic has had a huge impact on local small businesses, said Rick Weldon, president and CEO of the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce, which hosted the roundtable.
About 15 to 17 percent of businesses that were operating in the county before the pandemic aren’t in business today, Weldon said.
But while a third of the chamber’s members are behind on their dues, they’ve also seen double-digit growth in new members each of the past three months.
“There’s certainly cause for optimism today,” Weldon said.
A lot of businesses in Frederick took advantage of the PPP loans, and many were able to push their costs down the road by negotiating with vendors and landlords, said Richard Griffin, the city’s economic development director. But now they have to pay those costs, and the new relief plan will help, he said.
The ARP will dramatically help Frederick County’s Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed families, working families who can’t afford the basic cost of living even under normal circumstances, said Ken Oldham, executive director of the United Way of Frederick County.
They’re among the most likely to experience loss of income during the pandemic, most likely to have trouble finding childcare, most likely to be evicted from their homes and most likely to have front-line jobs that put them at risk of exposure to the coronavirus, among other factors, Oldham said.
He’s excited about the relief plan’s extension of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which puts money in the hands of ALICE families and is one of the strongest tools around to help alleviate poverty, he said.
Oldham said the new plan will have a substantial impact on the United Way’s clients.
“Is it enough? Ultimately, time will tell,” he said.