Maryland Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings, R-Harford. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

Each new year brings a sense of hope and optimism; a chance for people to start fresh and tackle new goals.

But just as the rush of the holidays began to wear off, reports of a strange new virus on the other side of the globe surfaced. The onset of strange illnesses isn’t totally new given fairly recent outbreaks of viruses like SARS and Ebola. As scary as they were, though, health professionals were able to isolate and prevent them from spreading far. So few of us saw making this new virus COVID-19 as an imminent threat.

Yet three weeks into 2020, COVID-19 was discovered in the United States. Reports of its harrowing impact on Washington State – particularly in nursing homes – were just the beginning of cases that started peppering the country.

On March 5, Maryland reported its first three cases. And we watched reports from Italy, where hospitals were overloaded, patients were cared for in hallways and ventilators were in short supply. Doctors were forced to decide which patients got lifesaving care and which would not. We got a glimpse into the horror that was in store if we didn’t take immediate action.

Maryland immediately began preparing for the worst-case scenario while hoping for the best. The goal was to “flatten the curve” and give our hospitals time to prepare for the overwhelming number of patients they might receive. Schools were closed. Sports competitions were postponed.

The Maryland General Assembly adjourned early for the first time since Abraham Lincoln was president. Businesses deemed “non-essential” were forced to close. People seemed willing to do their part to preserve and protect the health of their fellow citizens.

Fast-forward 10 weeks. Makeshift hospitals have been established and entire wards have been converted to care for COVID-19 patients. More personal protective equipment and ventilators have been obtained, and the state has greatly expanded testing at locations across Maryland.

We have mastered video conferencing, affording us a fun and rare opportunity to peek into the homes of others. Parents have a renewed respect for teachers. Medical professionals have also learned more about this new virus — how it’s transmitted, who is most vulnerable and how to treat it. And, we have learned and swiftly put into practice a term, social distancing, that will be a part of our way of life.

Tragically, some people have lost their lives. We still need to proceed with caution. However, it is time for us to put into place what we have learned and get Maryland back open for business.

For more than 60 days, large businesses deemed “essential” have had little to no competition. Home Depot, Lowes, Target and Walmart have seen sales go through the roof, while mom-and-pop stores have been shuttered – some of them permanently.

Small businesses are the backbone of Maryland’s economy, and it is past time that we give them a fighting chance to survive.

If a big box retailer is capable of putting tape on floors to mark six-foot social distancing, installing plexiglass in front of registers, and placing hand sanitizer throughout the store, so can every other business in Maryland. Some may argue that their smaller size makes them more capable of managing how many people are coming and going.

Let’s allow our small businesses to show the same kind of ingenuity in protecting their customers that they applied to starting their businesses. A perfect example is restaurants that want to offer outdoor dining service.

Any business that is able to implement proper social distancing measures should be allowed to open its doors again. It is time for Maryland to find a responsible balance between public health and economic recovery.

Memorial Day weekend marked the unofficial start to summer. Marylanders need to get safely back outside and enjoying all that our state has to offer.

Life as we know it will be different for the foreseeable future. Let’s learn to live with COVID-19, not hide from it.

— J.B. JENNINGS

The writer, a Republican, is the Senate Minority Leader. He represents Harford and Baltimore counties.