Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Work begins on future Rock Grove shopping center in Rockville

Work has begun on the transformation of the strip mall at the corner of MD 355 and Shady Grove Road in Rockville. Demolition of several vacant storefronts at one end of the shopping center is underway. Dunkin' Donuts remains open and is not part of the work being performed at this time. Property owner JBG Smith is transforming the center into a more upscale retail property that will be branded as Rock Grove.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Montgomery County Council proposes property tax hike

The Montgomery County Council is proposing to raise property taxes in the FY-2021 budget. No councilmember has announced this publicly, but the planned tax hike was revealed in a newspaper announcement the Council is required by law to publish before raising taxes.

A 4.5% property tax increase has been proposed. The Council recently criticized County Executive Marc Elrich for proposing a tax increase, but now are proposing one themselves. A public hearing on the tax increase has been scheduled for 1:30 PM on April 21, 2020.

Despite the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation's guidelines to allow residents to testify live by telephone, the Council is currently not allowing residents to do so, despite the Council having used videoconferencing to promote themselves this week. Residents may only send written or emailed comments on the tax increase, or recorded audio/video statements, and have been banned from entering the Council Office Building since the coronavirus outbreak began in the county.

No one can yet predict the full economic impact of the coronavirus shutdown, but it certainly will be significant. Raising everyone's tax bills is certainly a bold move amidst a worldwide pandemic and economic collapse.

The Council has raised property taxes every year this past decade except in 2014, when they gave a paltry $12 average tax cut during an election year. In 2016, the Council raised property taxes a whopping 9%, which translated to 10 or 11% for a large number of residents, due to rising assessments. But the tax hike failed to generate the expected revenue. In fact, revenue is now declining, after many wealthy residents fled to lower-tax jurisdictions in the region.

Earlier this year, the Council sought new taxing powers from the Maryland General Assembly. They hope to be able to raise income taxes beyond the current limit allowed, and to add additional property taxes based on what category of property you own.

Montgomery County Republican Party Chair Alexander A. Bush called the proposed tax increase "obscene," noting the flood of unemployment claims being filed by County residents, and the many coronavirus-related business closures. Bush strongly urged the Council to allow testimony by telephone at the public hearing.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Canopy by Hilton takes coronavirus message to heart at Pike & Rose

The Canopy by Hilton hotel at Pike & Rose is temporarily closed, like many hotels nationwide, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Upper floors of the building are still lit up because they comprise the 930 Rose condos atop the hotel levels. But some of the otherwise dark hotel windows have been lit up, Visiting Hours-style (ironically), to form a heart at this stressful time.
A man-made window pattern was topped off by the light of the moon over the hotel last evening. Hilton's website explains what the current reservation timeline is, and what policies the Tysons-based chain has modified or introduced to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Rockville virtual support group forms to help those stressed by coronavirus

Stressed out about coronavirus? A new COVID-19 virtual support group has been formed by Zixuan Wang, Psy.D. at Quince Orchard Psychotherapy in Rockville. With gatherings now forbidden due to the pandemic, the group will meet online once a week, from 1:00-2:00 PM on Fridays. Each session costs $20, and with no paper goods available to buy online or off, you've probably got the money. For more information or to register online, go here.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Montgomery County urgently seeking PPE donations for medical, public safety personnel

Montgomery County issued a statement early this morning asking for donations of personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical professionals and public safety employees. Items needed for the coronavirus crisis include
  • Respirators (N95 or KN95)
  • Masks (surgical or procedural)
  • Gowns (medical, isolation, or surgical)
  • Face Shields (medical goggles or safety glasses)
  • Gloves
County Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security Director Dr. Earl Stoddard said the County has already received much-appreciated donations from individuals, construction companies, laboratories and manufacturers, but that more are still needed. Anyone who is in a position to donate such equipment can fill out this form online.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Rockville biotech firm begins COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine test

BIOQUAL, a Rockville-based biotech firm, announced Tuesday that it has begun in-vivo testing of coronavirus COVID-19 vaccines. The company, founded in 1981, said that it has been developing animal models for a vaccine since February in partnership with Dr. Dan Barouch at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and the Ragon Institute, both affiliated with Harvard Medical School.

BIOQUAL has previously been active in vaccine development against AIDS, Hepatitis, Zika, and Chikungunya, to name a few. The firm is located at 9600 Medical Center Drive.

Montgomery County policy on coronavirus contact tracing: Do ask, don't tell

Most Montgomery County residents who live through the coronavirus pandemic will likely never forget the dramatic announcement of the jurisdiction's Patient Zero, Patient One and Patient Two - three travelers who brought the Covid-19 virus back to the county with them. The news meant the dreaded and deadly virus was now officially here. State and County officials said they would not reveal those patients' identities, and no one actually wanted or expected them to. But the public did want to know where those three people had gone while contagious, the general vicinity of MoCo in which they were located, and who had been exposed. Officials assured us that extensive interviews would take place to map out this information.

They never released it.

It's too late now. The three patients, thankfully, recovered. But aside from a single event at a Rockville retirement community, Montgomery County residents were never told which stores, restaurants, gyms, or other business and public facilities these people went to while contagious.

Whomever they exposed to the virus - and it's not credible to claim they contacted no human beings since returning from their travels - has either contracted it or fought it off, recovered or died. So it would be pointless to demand this information at this late date.

But the policy of "Do ask, don't tell" continues. Out of 388 known cases of coronavirus in Montgomery County, only a handful of exposure points have been made public, with the County liquor store on Hampden Lane in Bethesda being the only memorable one recently. The County has primarily announced when its own employees have tested positive, but it has not made public the public places those few dozen people went while contagious.

Is contact tracing being performed? If so, where are the results being recorded, and why have they not been released in a timely fashion while still relevant for each case? The local media hasn't pressed for these answers. While some countries have made the controversial move to track all citizens via their cell phones to provide the most-thorough contract tracing possible, and then alerted those exposed, here we are getting no answers from the honor-system interviews we were assured would take place when the first cases were confirmed on March 5(!!).

The failure to contact trace, or to make the results public (without identifying the patients, of course), has put all of us at risk. Along with the federal government's farcically-weak travel restrictions (a cruise ship loaded with infected Americans was allowed to dock, and the passengers disperse nationwide on commercial flights, only about 10 days ago - even after all federal officials knew at that point), the lack of information prevented potentially contaminated facilities from being cleaned according to coronavirus protocols, and those exposed from self-quarantining away from vulnerable family and community members.

Along with the deliberate failure at the federal, state and county levels to ensure sufficient hospital beds, masks, PPE, ventilators and other supplies would be available for a pandemic everyone has known was coming since SARS in 2002, a policy of "You can ask, but we won't tell you" has made the coronavirus outbreak even more dangerous for Montgomery County residents than it had to be.

Image courtesy CDC