DC Council business measures may factor into the overall race

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In its current session, the D.C. Council has mandated how often hotels must clean their rooms and how often movie theaters must show closed-captioned movies, among other measures aimed closely at businesses’ internal operations.

For council members and consumer advocates, the measures provide protections for residents and visitors. But some business owners see a trend toward overly onerous rules as the ongoing pandemic stretches businesses.

That dynamic has caused a delay that could affect the upcoming general election, in which a wide field of candidates is vying for two at-large council seats — including the current chairman of the council’s business committee and its work, two camps that are often seen as at odds.

Labor and consumer advocates want to keep their profits, while some business owners hope the next council will do more in their favor, with laws that could reduce their insurance burden and other regulations.

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The other two years since the pandemic began have been difficult for businesses in the county, especially those that cater to the city’s tourists (who disappeared for months) and downtown office workers (many of whom did not are still back at their desks. ). Vacant storefronts line the downtown corridors. More than 1,000 businesses closed in the first half of 2020, although license applications for new businesses have increased since then. The data shows that although more than 2,300 businesses left downtown DC from February 2020 to March 2022, suburban areas like Bethesda and Loudoun County have fared much better at maintaining and attracting businesses.

Solomon Keene, who heads the Washington Hotel Association, said landlords hit hard when the pandemic wiped out vacation travel and conferences are barely coping with the effects of the hotel preservation law, which allows the mayor to set rules on how often need hotel rooms. to clean, and another recent regulation that required hotels to notify guests of “actual or potential interruptions in service,” including if a hotel staff union threatens labor action.

“We have very real competitors on our borders in Virginia and in Maryland at National Harbor,” Keene said. “Honestly, it makes people consider the District’s competition.”

Two council members opposed the housekeeping bill when it passed in April — Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said washing hotel sheets more often would be harmful to the environment, and Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2 ) said businesses can’t necessarily afford the cost of more housekeepers — while the rest of the council approved the move, with many saying it would benefit workers by forcing hotels to hire more people.

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Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), the council’s top workers’ rights advocate and a candidate for re-election in the at-large race, dismissed the idea that the council’s recent legislation would drive business out of town.

“When we banned smoking in the city, [business owners] said all restaurants would be moved to Virginia. Did this happen? DC has had one of the most thriving restaurant scenes of any city in the country,” Silverman said. “Then we raised the minimum wage — again, the little boy who cried wolf. Again, ‘everyone’s going to move to Maryland and Virginia.’ No, that didn’t happen.”

She said the same speculation arose when she advocated for a paid parental leave benefit for D.C. employees that she believes has helped local businesses attract workers instead of hurting their bottom lines. “Workers in their 30s and 40s are asking about paid family leave. It is an important benefit for them now. We keep hearing that the sky is falling. The sky has not fallen.”

Silverman is running for re-election this year in a wide field that includes Councilman Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who chairs the council’s business committee and has been more business-friendly. McDuffie did not respond to requests for comment.

The two council members are running against incumbent Democrat Anita Bonds, independents Fred Hill, Karim Marshall and Graham McLaughlin, Republican Giuseppe Niosi and D.C. Statehood Green Party candidate David Schwartzman, in a race that will go down to two front-runners. of votes.

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McLaughlin has run on a pro-business platform. He criticized some of the council’s recent actions, including a bill banning companies from forcing multiple employees to sign non-compete agreements and hotel room cleaning legislation. “Encouraging businesses to train team members – these are the things we want,” he said. “The hotel bill is an example of performative action based on the demands of interest groups, not genuine consideration of what is best for the city and its residents. We should let businesses determine the best way to run their businesses, not try to constantly interfere with the market.”

Instead, he suggested easing regulations, such as removing licensing requirements for certain professions, such as interior design, and allowing businesses to move forward with projects if they don’t receive a timely response from city regulatory agencies. .

Phil Mendelson (D), the council’s chairman, said he sees the “tension” between laws that protect workers and residents and those that favor businesses as a key challenge for the council in the upcoming term.

“The council has had several debates about finding the right balance. We need to look more broadly at other aspects of the burden we place on businesses,” Mendelson said, saying his summer to-do list includes looking at fees like licensing costs that the city can reduce, and talking to others about ways to prevent small businesses from leaving town, citing the recent example of a distillery that closed in Ivy City while keeping production in Kansas. “The council needs to look at ways we can improve the business climate.”

D.C. has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to support businesses as the pandemic drags into its third year, handing out multiple rounds of generous grants to restaurants, entertainment venues, hotels and others.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of support poured into the business culture in DC. We’re very grateful for all of that. We couldn’t have gotten this far without him. It’s amazing,” said Kimberly Bender, who represents several local businesses as executive director of the DC Brewers’ Guild.

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But she said that even though grant money has kept breweries afloat, local laws have sometimes hindered them as well. “During any challenging time, a small business can survive as well as turn around. ‘Pivot’ was the buzzword for small business. If your hands are tied in a lot of ways, you don’t really have a lot of options.”

Dean Hunter, who runs a trade association for landlords who own small rental properties, said his organization has hosted seminars for landlords who want to buy their next building in Baltimore or Richmond, rather than D.C.

“The DC Council used the pandemic as an excuse to pass a series of regressive measures against landlords that are destroying landlords today. Left-wing activists used the pandemic as an excuse to push their agenda, and they did so very successfully,” Hunter said, pointing to landlord-tenant laws including a ban on filing an eviction over less than 600 dollars in lost rent and stricter notices on how landlords notify tenants of an eviction.

Business advocates have lobbied the council hard throughout the pandemic. The clash between opposing advocates, such as landlord and tenant groups, led to some compromises on eviction rules that change frequently during the pandemic. Recently, a year after passing a blanket ban on non-compete agreements, the council voted again to move to a much narrower version of the bill, at the urging of business owners.

Some are making plans to be more aggressive push back the wave of legislation. Hunter said he is encouraging landlords to run for the neighborhood advisory council, the lowest level of local government. Restaurant owners are discussing hiring David Catania, the former councilman turned local lobbyist, to advocate for legislation that would reduce their insurance burden just as he has lobbied for provisions friendly to the medical marijuana industry.

Complaints about the high cost of liquor liability insurance in the District date back decades; in 1985, The Post cited a bar owner whose insurance was raised from $185 to $26,500 after D.C. judges found bars liable for accidents caused by their patrons more strictly than Maryland or Virginia judges.

“This is something we should have addressed a long time ago,” said John Guggenmos, a restaurant owner and neighborhood advisory commissioner who advocates for laws to reduce bar liability. Staffing shortages and the rising cost of supplies plaguing restaurants aren’t the city’s fault, he said — indeed, city grants have helped restaurants survive those challenges — but toll reform would help.

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Guggenmos said he asked his insurer how much it would cost to cover his Logan Circle Number Nine strip if it were located in Maryland and got a quote that was less than a tenth of the price he’s paying. “To lower rates to parity with Virginia and Maryland will require legislative action.”

Lisa Dean, who owns a construction firm, said she believes D.C. requires a level of insurance that is too expensive for small firms like hers.

But as a lifelong resident, she finds the rewards outweigh the hassle. Recently, the city hired her firm to renovate playgrounds at several recreation centers.

“It’s different when you see a field or something in use where you worked. It is a beautiful project that is being used by the residents of the city where you live,” she said. “When [the playing fields] finished, you got to see the kids come out and actually play with them.”

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