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How Md. small businesses can fight the pandemic

President Joe Biden’s Sept. 9 order for the Labor Department to issue mandatory COVID-19 vaccination rules for companies that employ 100 workers or more will affect a number of major employers in Maryland.

These range from private employers such as Giant Food Inc. with 27,000 employees and Verizon with 14,000 to T. Rowe Price and M&T Bank Corp. with about 3,000 each.

While large employers are a vital part of the state’s economy, Maryland remains largely a “small business” state. According to 2019 figures from the U.S. Small Business Administration, 99 % of all private businesses in Maryland are considered small businesses, employing 1.1 million people, or 50.1% of the private workforce.

While the SBA generally defines small business as an operation with fewer than 500 employees, there are a significant number of businesses in Maryland that employ well below 100. SBA figures show that 36% of the state’s small businesses have fewer than 100 workers.

What this tells us is that while thousands of employees in the state will be affected by the president’s vaccine mandate, thousands more will not.

That presents an opportunity for small businesses in Maryland to have a significant impact in the ongoing public health crisis. And yes, it’s still a crisis. The daily average number of deaths in the state due to Covid-19 on September 19 was 12.4 and the daily average number of hospitalizations was 1,019, according to the New York Times’ published database.

True, those numbers are not as bad as some states. But when you consider that 99 percent of all deaths and cases are among the unvaccinated, you can only conclude this is still a public health crisis.

Vaccine efficacy

Despite claims to the contrary, the vast majority of unbiased scientific research and evidence confirms that all available COVID-19 vaccines are safe and highly effective, not only in preventing infection, but also mitigating the effect of COVID-19 in those who test positive for it despite vaccination.

Thus small businesses — whose employees often work in close spaces with outside customer contact (think your local dry cleaner, pub or corner grocery) — have an opportunity and perhaps an obligation to protect workers and customers by requiring employees to get vaccinated.

For those workers who decline, employers can legally require they get tested routinely to ensure that they quarantine to prevent transmission should they test positive.

Adopting such a vaccination/testing policy makes a lot of sense not just for the health of employees and customers, but for the bottom line. The impact on a small business operation when employees call out sick is greater than on larger businesses, which typically have the resources to back-fill.

The U.S. Labor Department is currently drafting regulations to support the president’s vaccine mandate. One of the expected regulations is that unvaccinated employees must be given paid time off to get the vaccine. While that may cause some minor disruption for a business, it seems reasonable to expect that it will be brief. All employers have the right to require proof of vaccination to return to work and be covered for the time off.

As for those employees who object on religious or medical grounds, an employer can legally require documentation to back up the objection. Legal experts note that if an exemption is granted, the employer can legally require the employee to work remotely or mask and take other health precautions in the workplace.

The bottom line is that small employers have a lot of the same tools available to large employers when it comes to mandatory vaccinations. And there’s little reason to wait for the Labor Department to issue regulations – unless an employer is looking for additional legal cover to require vaccination as a condition of employment.

With small businesses making up such a sizeable percentage of employment in the state, it seems reasonable that they should follow the federal lead and require employee vaccinations.

Think of the marketing opportunities for small businesses to advertise that all of its employees are vaccinated and the business cares about your health and is providing you a safe place to patronize.

According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, 63.3 % of Maryland’s population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19. About 69 % have received at least one dose. That puts Maryland in the top 10 states for vaccination. But as the statistics show, there is room to go higher.

Science suggests that herd immunity – when a portion of the population becomes immune to an infectious disease, preventing its spread – typically occurs at about 70%.

It’s not a stretch for Maryland to hit that milestone. But with vaccines so readily available it’s also evident that there is a significant percentage — 30% — of the population that is resistant or unmotivated to get vaccinated.

If small businesses take the public health crisis seriously and follow the president’s mandate to require employee vaccinations, they can help Maryland cross the goal line.

In doing so, Maryland residents and its economy will be the undisputed winners.

Donald C. Fry is president & CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee.