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A region in the path of the pandemic

Joe Nathan Big

I started the Regional Perspectives column on a celebratory note. It was March 2001. In the previous month, the Ravens had won their first Super Bowl. As I noted, “From Aberdeen to Annapolis, from Randallstown to Roland Park, they were ‘our’ Baltimore Ravens. It was one of those rare, unifying moments when all truly felt a part of a regional community known to the world as Baltimore.”

not too many months later, the region, indeed the nation and the world, were dealing with more jarring events. The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, the Pentagon and on a plane over central Pennsylvania, raised basic questions about the way we would think about cities and regions in the future.

Among the questions I posed then were: “Would developers, financiers and insurers be reluctant to undertake the next high-rise building project? And if we do not build high in the center of our urban areas, what are the implications for future regional development? Dies our response to achieve heightened security inevitably mean more suburban sprawl for our metropolitan areas?”

Nearly two decades later, we are rocked by a new crisis. Actually, two crises: A public health crisis brought about by the coronavirus pandemic and an economic crisis resulting from the actions that have been taken to shut down broad swaths of our economy.

These actions were initially led by private entities, such as decisions of the major sports leagues to suspend their seasons, the NCAA to cancel March Madness, the cancellations of conferences and meetings large and small, along with the many decisions of individuals to curtail their travel plans and cancel their hotel and airline reservations.

‘Social distancing’

It was only after these events that we saw a more urgent response by the public sector based upon dire warnings from public health experts about the need for “social distancing.” While there was uneven leadership and, at times, downright misinformation from elected leaders at the federal level, there was more decisive action being taken by a number of the nation’s governors, including here in Maryland.

To reduce any large gatherings of people, young and old, K-12 schools were closed here and in many other states. Public and private colleges and universities took similar action and determined that they would substitute online learning for classroom instruction, most likely for the balance of the spring 2020 semester.

And then we were urged, ultimately commanded, to stay at home. Restaurants and bars were shuttered, other than for carry-out and delivery operations. Supermarkets, pharmacies and delivery services became the few remaining sectors of private economic activity.

As we stay at home, many of us are learning to conduct more of our lives virtually. We are holding meetings, continuing planned classes and participating in religious services using online apps and streaming services.  Count this columnist among those just learning the value of Zoom to see and hear people in multiple sites, allowing one to conduct a meeting or simply to connect with one another on a social basis.

Creative solutions

And, we are becoming extremely resourceful. With the hospitality industry, in all its facets, experiencing historic low levels of demand, unused hotel rooms can be part of the response to the public health crisis.

Gov. Larry Hogan, as part of Maryland’s hospital surge plan, is arranging for the Baltimore Convention Center and the adjoining Hilton Hotel to be used as “alternative care sites,” in a plan developed in partnership with the University of Maryland Medical System and Johns Hopkins Hospital. The hospital surge, which has many other components, is expected to increase hospital capacity by an additional 6,000 beds.

While the Federal Reserve System marshals its resources and the Congress wrangles over the precise contours of a national economic rescue package, that type of local creativity may be key to the eventual recovery of the Baltimore regional economy.

We don’t know how long it will be before there are effective therapeutics to treat the COVID-19 disease or a vaccine to forestall it. And, therefore, we don’t know how long we will have to remain in this “stay at home and work online” economy. It’s far too soon to suggest that we know the ramifications of this pandemic for the Baltimore region.

As for my ruminations following the 9/11 attacks, we are still building skyscrapers – One World Trade Center, also known as Freedom Tower, was built on the site of the former World Trade Center complex in New York City. And we are still experiencing suburban sprawl.

Joe Nathanson is the not-quite-retired principal of Urban Information Associates, a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. Since 2001, he has written a monthly column for The Daily Record and can be contacted at