In an effort to provide affordable health care coverage for small businesses, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce this week announced a health insurance plan it claims will guarantee stable and lower premium rates for the next two years. The chamber said its program is a new benefit from the Johns Hopkins health plan and will be made available to Maryland companies with five to 50 employees.

Premiums will be approximately 25 percent below traditional plans being offered in the state.Rates will be guaranteed for a two-year period.

Toyota Motor Corp. over the weekend presented its student leadership award to Cedric Rawls, a sophomore football and soccer player at Howard University who holds a B-plus average in chemistry.

The award included a $1,000 check to the school in Rawls's name, a plaque and a congratulatory letter for the scholar-athlete. Seemingly innocuous stuff. But Toyota has been doing these things for several years.

The significance is that Japanese car companies have come under attack from civil rights groups and others for accepting blacks as customers, while allegedly discriminating against them in hiring and promotions.

Toyota has sought to short-circuit that criticism by creating minority college scholarship programs, setting up programs to train minority auto dealers (10 of the 16 black-owned Japanese car dealerships in the United States are Toyota shops), and supporting black businesses such as Black Entertainment Television.

Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. officials and Tammy Darvish, general manager of Darcars Toyota in Silver Spring, were on hand to make the award to Rawls. No social statement, Darvish said. Just good business.

The news was bad enough last week when October financial results for major national retailers showed that average same-store sales rose by modest single-digit percentages.

The figure is telling because same-store sales measure sales at stores opened a year or more and are considered a more accurate measure of a retailer's performance than overall sales.

And some important retailers, such as Circuit City, J.C. Penney, May Department Stores, the Limited and Sears, even had decreases in their same-store sales, an indication that consumers are cutting back.

But, a number of local retailers say, the results for October are even worse in the Washington area.

According to a confidential monthly report by the Greater Washington Bureau of Trade that goes out to selected retailers who participate, same-store sales in the Washington area are uniformly negative with some stores showing double-digit decreases in the low teens.

The board has been compiling sales results for more than 20 years, and the recent figures are results from 15 major local retailers, who remain anonymous in the survey.

"Bad is too mild a word for the figures we have been seeing lately," said one retailer, who did not want to be named.

The economic picture around here these days is fairly bleak. Layoffs and bankruptcies are mounting ...

Well, maybe not all the time.

A regular weekly check of local bankruptcy courts found that no businesses had made either Chapter 11 or Chapter 7 bankruptcy filings in the District last week. None.

Said Pat Krosel, chief deputy clerk for the D.C. Bankruptcy Court: "Sometimes we will go weeks at a time with no businesses, just individuals."