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Baltimore City, surrounding counties to allow outdoor dining as coronavirus restrictions lift statewide

Ananda prepares to reopen for outdoor service after Gov. Larry Hogan lifts some restaurant restrictions starting Friday at 5 p.m.

The reservations are set for 5 p.m. Friday. Staff at Ananda in Fulton look forward to welcoming guests to the open-air patio for the first time in months — even if it means they’ll be wearing face masks and shields and placing dishes on tables spaced 6 feet apart.

“We missed serving people,” said Lopsang Lama, bartender and server at the Howard County restaurant known for its nostalgic take on Indian cuisine.

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Restaurants in Baltimore and outlying counties open up for outdoor table service Friday in what many are calling a first step toward normalcy for area restaurants kneecapped by the coronavirus pandemic and the mandated dining room closures. Officials in some areas say they are looking at closing off streets to allow restaurants more seating space, a step business owners welcome.

The move comes after Republican Gov. Larry Hogan on Thursday announced he was lifting more coronavirus-related restrictions statewide, including on outdoor dining. As part of his three-stage plan to reopen the economy, Hogan began allowing manufacturing, retail, haircuts and worship services earlier this month. Hogan has allowed cities and counties to make their own decisions about when to reopen, and officials in Carroll County, Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Harford County, Howard County and Anne Arundel County followed suit with announcements of their own.

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Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said the decision to allow outdoor dining was made in consultation with the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, and after reviewing Baltimore’s rates of COVID-19.

Young, a Democrat, previously opted to keep stay-at-home orders in place in Baltimore, citing the city’s rates of infection. On Thursday, he said the city would review its policy on religious gatherings within a week and its policy on private outdoor swimming pools within two weeks.

The city’s statement Thursday says restaurants should ensure that patrons are seated 6 feet apart, at tables of no more than six people unless they are members of the same household. Staff should be checked for COVID-19 symptoms before their shifts and get trained on safety guidelines. Menus should be sanitized or disposable, and tables and chairs should be cleaned between each use.

For now, only restaurants that already have permits for outdoor dining can serve al fresco in Baltimore. The city plans to expedite the permitting process and waive or reduce fees, according to Democratic City Councilman Eric Costello.

“What we’ve created here is a very robust program to deal with assisting virtually every restaurant in the city,” Costello said earlier this week. The city has also announced a $1.5 million “design for distancing” program to help local businesses adapt to their new reality.

“It is vitally important to have these important businesses up and running as quickly as possible,” Stephen A. Wantz, president of the Carroll County Board of Commissioners, wrote in an email Wednesday to The Baltimore Sun. Wantz, a Republican, said specific guidelines would remain up to individual venues.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman said Wednesday evening his county would "move safely and quickly” following Hogan’s announcement to allow outdoor dining as part of the state’s first phase of reopening.

Glassman, a Republican, signed an executive order Thursday allowing restaurants to use some of their parking lots for outdoor dining. "I kind of was hoping [Hogan] would do it 10 days ago. I had an executive order ready to go,” Glassman said.

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said he received input from dozens of restaurant owners and 180 members of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce before making his announcement.

“Howard County has an incredible restaurant and bar community, and we want these businesses to be able to reopen safely and effectively,” Ball, a Democrat, said in a statement Thursday.

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, a Democrat, also announced that restaurants would be allowed to open for outdoor dining at Friday evening.

Beginning at 5 p.m. Friday, Baltimore County restaurants already permitted for outdoor seating can resume, County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said. Other county restaurants will be able to apply online for outdoor seating permission starting Friday morning. The county will conditionally approve all applications until further notice.

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Olszewski also said the county would let outdoor pools and outdoor youth camps and sports open, in line with state guidance. Retail stores, hair salons and houses of worship can reopen at 50% capacity.

But he urged “our most vulnerable residents,” including those 65 and older and people with chronic health conditions, to continue to stay home as much as possible. People who live with those at high risk should do the same, he said.

“I want to be very, very clear,” said Olszewski, a Democrat. “While there are signs that we are flattening the curve, the virus is still here. It will take more lives, more people will become sick, and more families will lose loved ones.”

Former Maryland health secretary Dr. Georges C. Benjamin said restaurants and other facilities need to be vigilant about their staff using protective equipment and sanitizing tables in between customers.

“Am I nervous about reopening? You bet,” said Benjamin, now the executive director of the American Public Health Association. “I saw the pictures of what people were doing in Ocean City.”

Over Memorial Day weekend, photos from Ocean City depicted beachgoers crowding the boardwalk. Many people weren’t wearing masks.

While Benjamin believes Hogan’s lifting of some restrictions is justified, he has lingering concerns. He worries about whether people will follow health advice from public officials. And patrons need to scope out eateries before opting to dine there, he said.

“I would want to make sure all the staff is wearing masks, and see if they’re wiping down the tables between customers,” Benjamin said. “Are people sitting 6 feet apart?”

In Baltimore, the Atlas Restaurant Group posted its plans to enforce hygiene at its various restaurants to Facebook. They include staff “wellness checks” and the use of disposable menus, as recommended by federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Atlas founder Alex Smith posted on Facebook before the mayor’s announcement his intention to open 11 of the 13 properties he runs in Baltimore, including Ouzo Beach, Azumi and Loch Bar.

Restaurateur Tony Foreman said he expects all five Foreman Wolf properties, including Charleston and Petit Louis, to begin offering outdoor dining this weekend.

“As a business owner, I’m encouraged,” Foreman said of the announcement. “As a citizen, I’m a little bit surprised.”

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Others aren’t quite ready. “That snuck up on us,” said Eliza Steele, host at Dylan’s Oyster Cellar in Hampden. The restaurant has been doing carryout business for months, but owners weren’t anticipating that outdoor dining would be allowed so soon, she said.

Some area business owners, now scrambling to buy outdoor furniture, hope local governments will close streets to allow them more space.

“The sidewalks are not sufficient,” said Sergio Vitale, who created a petition to close off streets in Little Italy, where he operates Aldo’s Ristorante Italiano. He wants to see High Street shut down to traffic on a temporary basis to act as an open-air food court, where patrons can sit after ordering from Little Italy’s eateries.

Hogan has encouraged jurisdictions to close off streets and expand dining areas into parking lots and public outdoor spaces. Baltimore officials are exploring the idea of shutting down streets that aren’t main thoroughfares through an “outdoor seating relief plan,” said Costello. So is Baltimore County, Olszewski said Thursday.

Steele is among Baltimoreans who want to see 36th Street, known locally as “The Avenue,” closed to traffic to allow restaurants to serve more patrons.

“I hope we don’t pass up on the opportunity to do something really big,” Steele said.

For many business owners, outdoor dining is increasingly looking like the path forward.

Peter DiPrinzio, director of food and beverage for Seawall Development, has been exploring ways to increase outdoor dining options at R. House, its Remington food hall, possibly even offering outdoor movies and other events with social distancing in place.

“We don’t expect or plan to do any indoor seating until probably the fall or later,” he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jean Marbella and Baltimore Sun Media reporter James Whitlow contributed to this article.

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