We are in for a very dark and depressing winter with the coronavirus pandemic raging around us. President-elect Joe Biden says so. Gov. Larry Hogan says so. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top doc, says so.
But they all say that next year, if we just hold on, things will be better, after the new COVID-19 vaccines are administered. We might return to something resembling normal.
That may be so, however most experts looking into the future, see a life that will be better but not exactly the same as it was before the pandemic exploded in our world.
Whether it is the shift from in-person shopping to online, or decline of movie theaters in favor of streaming videos on our ever-larger home televisions, predictions for the “new normal” range from a lot of change to an awful lot.
Megan McArdle, an opinion columnist for the Washington Post, wrote in a recent column:
“For all the talk of a ‘return to normal,’ large chunks of the old normal are due for a post-covid-19 rethink … The more I think about it, the more I think I’m talking about practically everything.”
One of her predictions might have a harmful impact on Frederick.
Referring to an expected decline in business travel, McArdle wrote that all travel might become increasingly more expensive, “since travelers on an expense account often subsidize bargain-hunting tourists.
“The resulting declines will crush hotels, airlines and their workers, plus the budget of every city with a significant tourism or convention business,” she added.
While Frederick is not a Las Vegas, a New York or even a Washington, D.C., as a tourist destination, visitors to the city are a significant contributor to the economic vitality of the downtown historic district.
All sorts of local businesses could be hurt by any kind of downturn in tourism here. The city has already lost Volt, a destination restaurant in town. (Although, it was replaced with a new venture from celebrity chef Bryan Voltaggio.) Other restaurants which cater both to locals and visitors are struggling, trying to hold on until the pandemic wanes.
The long-sought downtown hotel and conference center could become a casualty of the pandemic as well. We have strongly supported the project for many years as an important generator of business activity in the historic district, but we have to wonder if the financial backers including the city government will rethink their plans.
If the Thanksgiving holiday shopping season is any indication, the small retail businesses downtown seem to be holding their own financially, with the avid support of local shoppers.
While the Associated Press reported that nationally the pandemic kept crowds thin at malls and stores on Black Friday, that seemed not to be the case downtown.
Tom England, owner of Dancing Bear Toys and Gifts on West Patrick Street, told News-Post reporter Erika Riley that he was pleasantly surprised by how strong sales were on Small Business Saturday. They were actually better than the previous year, he said.
That offers a ray of hope. But leaders of the city, the county and the business community should be taking nothing for granted. Now is the time for them to be meeting and making plans to shore up the local economy.
The New York Times reported this week that the economy could be crippled if the federal government continues to deadlock on a new round of financial aid to struggling businesses.
“With many service businesses having already depleted cash reserves and the government aid they received earlier in the year, another wave of failures looms,” the Times warned. “And that imperils not only individual shops and restaurants, but also the commercial landlords they pay rent to, and the state and local governments relying on their tax dollars.”
Before the pandemic, visitor spending in Frederick had soared past $425 million a year, generating millions in tax dollars. This year has been a disaster, but we are worrying now about next year and the year after that.
We encourage County Executive Jan Gardner, Frederick Mayor Michael O’Connor and Rick Weldon, president and CEO of the county Chamber of Commerce, to put together a task force now on the serious challenges facing our local economy. There is no time to waste.