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Baltimore judge allows city’s dining ban to stand, denying restaurant group’s request for temporary block

Judges in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County have allowed dining bans in those jurisdictions to stand, casting doubt on a Maryland trade group’s quest to overturn them.

In both places, judges said Wednesday that restaurants are unique among businesses in that patrons must remove their masks to eat, posing additional risks for transmission of the coronavirus.

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The decisions come in contrast to Anne Arundel County, where a judge recently granted an injunction allowing restaurants to continue serving guests inside.

Baltimore Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill acknowledged in his order Wednesday that the restaurant industry “bears a disproportionate burden in this public health crisis.”

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But, he wrote, Mayor Brandon Scott’s recent decision to ban on-premise dining in the city was made in the interest of public health and the need to cut down viral transmission.

The Restaurant Association of Maryland announced last week that it was suing in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, jurisdictions where indoor dining has been banned to slow the spread of the coronavirus. A separate suit was filed in Mongtomery County, but a judge there has not yet issued a decision.

Lawyers for the Restaurant Association of Maryland had said they were encouraged by Anne Arundel Circuit Judge William Mulford II’s decision to issue a restraining order on behalf of restaurants there, overturning a ban on indoor dining until Dec. 28.

In Baltimore, Fletcher-Hill denied the plaintiffs’ request to temporarily block the ban, but both sides will have another chance to present their cases. An evidentiary hearing in the lawsuit will be held Jan. 7 via Zoom.

In a statement Wednesday evening, Marshall Weston, president and CEO of the restaurant trade group, expressed disappointment in the Baltimore judge’s decision, which he said “directly impacts thousands of employees who have lost their jobs and are unable to provide for their families, while also expediting the number of restaurants that will close permanently.”

Experts predict around half of restaurants to shutter for good amid the pandemic. In Baltimore, unemployment among hospitality workers is expected to surge again in the wake of a rise in coronavirus cases coupled with mandated shutdowns.

Scott praised Fletcher-Hill’s decision, saying in a statement that the dining ban was necessary given both the science and “the critical role” the city’s hospitals play in the statewide fight against COVID-19. He added: “I will ease restrictions when it is justifiable by the data.”

City solicitor Dana Moore added: “We’re pleased that [Fletcher-Hill] denied the temporary restraining order and upheld the really science-based executive order issued by our mayor.”

The 47 plaintiffs in Baltimore include businesses large and small, such as Orto, Phillips Seafood, the Atlas Restaurant Group and Mother’s Grille. The group’s lawyers, who could not be reached for comment, had claimed that local leaders failed to prove that COVID-19 cases were linked to indoor dining.

Scott also encouraged residents to “make a point of supporting your local restaurants this holiday season.”

According to The Washington Post, Prince George’s Circuit Judge John P. Davey said Wednesday that the jurisdiction’s indoor dining ban was justified by “a legitimate government interest to save lives and maintain sufficient hospital beds to care for Prince George’s County citizens.”

Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said in a statement that “While closing indoor dining gives me no pleasure,” such “difficult actions” were necessary to stop the spread of the illness.

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