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Baltimore Mayor Scott announces dining restrictions will remain in place as coronavirus cases continue to rise

One day after a judge upheld the city’s dining ban, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott says he will keep the restrictions in place as cases of the coronavirus continue to rise.

In a news conference Friday afternoon, Scott said he was sympathetic to the struggles restaurant owners face in the city. “I feel their pain,” he said, adding that he planned to meet with owners to discuss the pandemic’s impact. “The inability for them not to work or run their business is one of the things that keeps me up at night.”

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Scott put in place an executive order last month that barred all on-premise dining in Baltimore, a move public health experts have called a necessary and correct step to reduce deaths and transmission of the coronavirus in the city. But many local business owners have said it hurts their bottom line — especially as eateries in neighboring counties are still allowed to serve customers indoors. Some are closing, for now.

While carryout operations are still permitted in Baltimore, some sit-down restaurants like Thames Street Oyster House say they’re losing money by staying open for takeout operations. “There comes a point when there’s just no more money,” said owner Candace Beattie. “But we’re going to do our best and make sure we survive this.”

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In recent days Beattie said she had made the difficult decision to shutter her Fells Point restaurant temporarily — the first time the business has been closed since April. “Without dining there’s really not much we can do.” They’ll serve their last customers on Sunday; Beattie hopes to reopen in a few weeks.

Beattie said she doesn’t blame the city rules alone for the slump in business — a confluence of factors include the typically slow winter months and the overall resurgence of the coronavirus, which is killing record numbers of Americans. Health officials warn a new, more contagious strain of the virus is spreading. “I blame the pandemic,” she said.

The pandemic has given rise to a confusing patchwork of dining restrictions across the state, leading to frustration among business owners as well as multiple lawsuits.

Across Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan has limited restaurants to 50% indoor capacity during the pandemic, while allowing individual jurisdictions to impose harsher guidelines. Last month, Hogan told reporters that Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County’s decision to halt outdoor dining “doesn’t compute” with advice he’d received. Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman later reversed the ban on al fresco dining, which health experts say is safer than sitting inside a restaurant.

Some Baltimore restaurant owners joined a legal effort to overturn the city’s dining ban. The suit was led by the Restaurant Association of Maryland, which also sued in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. One plaintiff was the city’s Atlas Restaurant Group which owns around a dozen places in Baltimore. Owner Alex Smith said in a text message he’s closed down all but three of his restaurants since Scott’s executive order took effect last month. The company has laid off 600 employees.

Smith called the continuation of the dining ban “a travesty” and said it would have long-term ramifications for the city. “Our employees are moving out of the city to find jobs in the county. Our customers are staying in the county,” he said.

Throughout the U.S., the pandemic has walloped the restaurant industry, which already gets by on razor-thin margins. Experts predict up to half will close permanently during the pandemic.

Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.

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