January to April is usually a bustling time in Annapolis.
Legislators, lobbyists, activists and political junkies from across the state descend on the capital for a breakneck 90-day legislative session that generates substantial economic activity for bars, restaurants, hotels and other businesses serving the influx of visitors.
But like nearly everything since March — including last year’s shortened General Assembly session — the coronavirus pandemic is expected to cut into those activities business owners have relied on for years. Now they are bracing for a less prosperous start to the year as the General Assembly kicks off a stripped-down session today.
The yearly gathering of nearly 200 lawmakers will be held mostly online. Committee meetings will be held via video conference. Members of the public — including activists and lobbyists — will be barred from entering the State House without an appointment.
Gone, too, will be the dinner parties hosted by lobbyists and interest groups where lawmaking discussions occur. From a surge of pre-session fundraising events and receptions marking the start and end of the session to legislative dinners and impromptu lunches peppered throughout, the period has become a reliable source of income for restaurants like Red Red Wine Bar on Main Street, co-owned by Lisa and Brian Bolter.
“It’s not something we can do this year,” Lisa Bolter said. “The legislators still get their per diems; so, we’re counting on that and hoping that they still come in for lunch and for their meetings, and that sort of thing.”
Galway Bay on Maryland Avenue is another watering hole for legislators that sits just steps from the State House. Over the years, the bar has become an intimate setting for legislators to get to know each other over drinks and blow off steam during the high-pressure session, said Anthony Clark, who co-owns the group that runs Galway and several other restaurants in the county.
Much of that will disappear this year, he said.
“We do a lot of business for the legislature, specifically carryout meals for Legislative Services,” Clark said. “We do anticipate a drop.”
The slimmed-down session will have ripple effects beyond the downtown area as well. Politicians and their staffers usually would trek out to Forest Drive for a meal at Sin Fronteras or order from once what was a regular lunch spot for late House Speaker Mike Bush, owner Walter Vasquez said.
But with the new restrictions, it will mean fewer people.
“It’s going to affect everybody,” he said. “Especially downtown.”
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Hotels are also expected to take a hit. The Historic Inns of Annapolis, which comprises three historic hotels downtown, could see an 80% dip in bookings from guests visiting during the session, said Daryl Strayer, vice president and general manager. The hotels include Maryland Inn on Church Circle, Robert Johnson House and Governor Calvert House on State Circle.
Bookings from legislators — who are expected to remain in Annapolis for the full three months — are down 25%, Strayer said.
Beyond room bookings, a major moneymaker is the range of receptions, banquets and parties held in the hotels throughout the session, no longer allowed because of public health restrictions. Food and beverage sales from those events are “enormous,” Strayer said.
“That’s kind of the way it is,” he said. “Hopefully, the people that aren’t staying with us full time come in as part-timers and support the hotels.”
Strayer said he had been reassured by some lawmakers who made a point to tell Strayer and his staff they are staying at the hotel to help them survive.
Bolter said she had heard similar sentiments from senators and representatives who have promised they plan to order lunch and dinner and use their catering services during the session.
“We hope they spend their per diem,” she said. “Their message is ‘We know this is going to be a hard one.’ It means a lot.”