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Maryland restaurant trade group sues Baltimore City, Prince George’s County over coronavirus dining restrictions

Michelle Robinson, a server at Phillips Seafood Restaurant in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor who is 9 months pregnant, spoke at news conference Friday about the effects of restrictions on dining.
Michelle Robinson, a server at Phillips Seafood Restaurant in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor who is 9 months pregnant, spoke at news conference Friday about the effects of restrictions on dining. (Baltimore Sun)

Striking back against bans on in-house dining at restaurants due to the pandemic, the restaurant industry sued Baltimore City and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties Friday seeking to overturn those local orders and reopen by Christmas.

The effort in Baltimore and Prince George’s is being led by the Restaurant Association of Maryland, a Columbia-based trade group. During a news conference Friday, association president Marshall Weston said that business owners face an “impossible task” of trying to stay open with only carryout to sustain themselves.

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The suits come two days after an Anne Arundel County judge issued a temporary restraining order to overturn that jurisdiction’s ban on indoor dining. Weston said his group was encouraged by that decision, which came in response to a case brought by restaurant owners in Annapolis and Severna Park. They were represented by Annapolis attorney C. Edward Hartman III.

The restaurant association’s attorneys argue that restaurants have been unfairly singled out for restrictions despite insufficient evidence that they pose a greater risk for transmission of the coronavirus.

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“Why restaurants? What’s the difference” between restaurants and other businesses, said attorney Joe Zauner of the Baltimore firm Zauner & Mtimet, which is representing the restaurant association in Baltimore and Prince George’s.

His firm began drafting the case before the Anne Arundel decision and borrowed heavily from that case, Zauner said.

Zauner said he hopes judges will grant a temporary restraining order in each jurisdiction within a few days, which would allow restaurants to reopen in time for Christmas and New Year’s.

Hartman is representing plaintiffs in the Montgomery County case, too, Weston said. Hartman could not be reached Friday for comment.

Public health experts say there are differences that make indoor dining riskier than, say, going to the grocery store. While retail shops can enforce mask mandates among customers, it’s impossible for diners to eat with a mask on.

Such maskless moments create the potential for spread of the virus, said Dr. Morgan Katz, assistant professor of infectious disease at Johns Hopkins University. And diners tend to spend longer at a restaurant than they would inside a typical store.

“You can get a lot of viral shedding in that time,” Katz said.

Still, Katz said he thinks there are ways to eat at a restaurant safely.

“Outdoor dining — if you can make it happen — is generally safe, and I do go dine outside,” she said. “I personally wouldn’t dine indoors. I don’t want all the restaurants to hate me, but I have to be honest.”

Statewide, Gov. Larry Hogan has limited restaurants to 50% of their capacity for indoor dining, but has allowed local leaders to impose stricter measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The state’s health department considers restaurants “high-risk locations” for the spread of the virus. Others include weddings, parties and stores, places where there is “prolonged exposure to other people.”

According to state contact tracing data from July through early November, a little more than one in 10 of infected respondents said that had eaten inside at a restaurant.

Baltimore’s ban on indoor and outdoor dining went into effect last week. Asked about the lawsuit Friday, Mayor Brandon Scott defended the decision to halt on-premise dining in the city, saying: “What we did was guided by public health science and advice. Period.”

While the first batches of a promising new vaccine are arriving at Maryland hospitals, cases of the coronavirus continue to rise statewide. Maryland added more than 2,500 new COVID-19 cases and 36 new related deaths Friday.

Dave Rather, whose Mother’s Grille has branches in Baltimore City and Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, said he was glad to hear of the association’s suit, which, if successful, could reopen his restaurant’s Federal Hill location.

At the moment, he said, “we’re losing money every day staying open.”

He’s determined not to cut employees’ hours right before Christmas, but it’s a challenge when, as he said, “we’re doing zero business.”

Like many other restaurant owners, Rather believes his business has been unfairly targeted for closure during the pandemic.

“If Walmart can be packed,” he said, “then people should be allowed to go into restaurants.”

Baltimore restaurant owner Tony Foreman of the Foreman Wolf Restaurant Group said more high-risk behavior is happening in private residences than in restaurants like his Charleston and Bar Vasquez.

“Thanksgiving was not a super spreader event because people were in restaurants,” he said. On that holiday, “people don’t go to restaurants that much. They gather in peoples’ homes.”

While Foreman has spoken previously in support of city efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus, he said he has “mixed feelings” about dining bans in the city while restaurants in neighboring counties are allowed to remain open.

“I’m pretty confident that counties around us are very busy in their restaurants,” he said. “It is difficult to sit idly by and have my staff wonder how they’re going to feed their family on Christmas.”

The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on the hospitality industry, with 45% of area restaurant operators telling the Restaurant Association of Maryland they would close within the next six months without a relief package from the federal government, according to Weston. More than 100,000 workers remain unemployed. Already, dozens of restaurants in the Baltimore region have closed permanently amid the pandemic, including some that had been open for more than 20 years, such as City Cafe in Mt. Vernon and Westminster’s Villa Pizza.

At Friday’s news conference, restaurateurs and their employees spoke of their personal and financial hardships amid the virus.

Lynn Martins emotionally described laying off staff at Seibel’s Restaurant in Burtonsville. Saying operating expenses this year have surpassed revenues, she said she expects to shut down Jan. 1.

Michelle Robinson, a server at Phillips Seafood Restaurant in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and nine months pregnant, wiped away tears, saying she had to tell her sons to choose between having Christmas presents and putting food on the table.

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“I don’t have enough food to feed my children, honestly,” Robinson said.

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Baltimore Sun reporters Tim Prudente and Emily Opilo contributed to this article.

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