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Baltimore restaurants and diners adjust to new one-hour limit on in-person dining. How are things going so far?

Baltimore City restaurants can serve dine-in customers at 25 % capacity with one hour limit, a requirement that's unique to the city.

Out to dinner at Dylan’s Oyster Cellar this weekend, Chris Franzoni checked the time every 15 minutes.

The Federal Hill resident, a lawyer and food blogger, wasn’t being rude. He was simply complying with a new rule in Baltimore meant to slow the spread of COVID-19.

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In a news conference last week announcing that the city’s bars and restaurants could resume on-premise service at limited capacity, Mayor Brandon Scott added some caveats: Among them, guests must sign in and out, and they must leave within an hour.

Stefanie Mavronis, a spokeswoman for Scott, said that as coronavirus cases begin to level off, the one-hour limit was made in effort to strike an “appropriate balance between easing into reopening” and reducing the amount of time that people could be exposed to the virus — particularly without wearing a mask.

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But health experts and restaurant goers in Baltimore question whether the new policy will actually make dining safer — or just be a hassle for restaurants. While bars and restaurants across Maryland are required to shut by 10 p.m., no such one-hour time limit exists in neighboring jurisdictions.

“It adds a little bit of anxiety to the experience knowing you have to be out in an hour,” said Franzoni. During his hour-long meal in Hampden, he ate in an enclosed greenhouse built just for four people — and was sitting with his “pod” of friends who he sees regularly.

“Whether we were in there for an hour or two hours or three hours was not going to make a difference in regards to COVID,” he said.

Afterward, Franzoni and his group stopped by an outdoor tent at a neighboring restaurant for some hot chocolate. Such a scenario — where diners go to multiple venues — would actually be riskier than staying at one place for a longer period of time, says Melissa Marx, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Baltimore City restaurants are allowed to serve dine-in customers at 25 % capacity and each table has to finish within an one hour limit, a requirement that's unique to the city.
Baltimore City restaurants are allowed to serve dine-in customers at 25 % capacity and each table has to finish within an one hour limit, a requirement that's unique to the city. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

“If people are going from place to place … they’re increasing the risk [of exposure to COVID-19] even more if they’d have stayed in one place” for more than an hour, she said. Generally speaking, the less time people spend in a confined space the better, but really “takeout is better than one hour,” she said. “I haven’t seen any research that indicates anything magic about one hour.”

Asked whether the one-hour rule could have the unintended consequence of encouraging bar-hopping, Baltimore city health commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said, “We’re certainly open to feedback.”

She said Scott would “consider all of these things as he moves through and makes these decisions.”

Mavronis said that Baltimoreans should avoid risky behaviors like barhopping. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” she said.

To supporters, the one-hour limit reflects a compromise between public health aspirations and economic realities. Food blogger Arli Lima says she reviews COVID-19 data daily as part of her day job with the city of Baltimore. But she is sympathetic to restaurant owners and staff who are impacted by the lockdowns. “I’m kind of torn because I have a lot of restaurant friends and they’re frustrated with it.”

Over the weekend she dined at Nepenthe, a Hampden pub. After signing in her name with the hostess, she pulled up the restaurant’s menu by scanning a QR code with her phone. At the bar, she ordered a flight of beers and some fries — which she figured would be quick to serve — and paid her check before sitting down. The hostess returned to let Lima know when she had just 15 minutes left to sit. “The process was seamless,” she said. Though she didn’t quite finish her beer flight. “I just didn’t want to scarf it down and then drive home.”

Lima says the new rule requires planning and thoughtfulness on the part of guests. “Maybe order two or three appetizers versus full meals,” she said. “Just be aware that you only have the hour, so plan accordingly.”

The rules also require planning and enforcement from restaurant owners and managers, already tasked with reminding customers to put on their face masks and maintain distance from one another.

“It’s very anxiety inducing, for sure,” said Kathleen Tozzi, general manager of Whitehall Market. “I end up being the police.”

This past weekend, she monitored the food hall’s dining areas with a seating chart, taking notes about when people had sat down. Visitors signed in at the stall where they placed their orders, and most wrapped up their meals within an hour, Tozzi says. It helps that guests to the market, which opened in the middle of last year, are used to having to comply with COVID-19.

“No one has ever been in the market in a time when it wasn’t a pandemic,” she said.

The one-hour limit wasn’t a problem for Pikesville resident David Greene, who drove down this week for lunch at G&A Restaurant, a Highlandtown diner known for its Coney Island hot dogs. He usually stops by for a quick bite with his newspaper as a companion — 30 or 40 minutes. “It’s quick and easy and you get in and out,” he said.

While fast-casual restaurants like G&A and the stalls at Whitehall are used to serving people quickly, some sit-down restaurants have opted to stay closed rather than comply with the new limits. In a statement posted to the restaurant’s website, Aldo’s in Little Italy criticized the “Orwellian” time limits and new requirements that businesses maintain sign-in sheets for customers to assist with contact tracing efforts. They’ll stay closed for now. So will Gunther & Co. in Canton. Owner Nancy Trice told The Sun last week that the one-hour time limit was unworkable for the restaurant, as is the city’s 25% capacity limit on indoor dining.

Others have modified their usual operations to accommodate guests in an hour. At Highlandtown’s Sally O’s, guests are encouraged to make reservations for an outdoor “cocktail hour” while taking their food to go. An hourglass timer at each table reminds people of when their hour is up.

Owner Jesse Sandlin said she worried about managing diners’ expectations — and the possibility of “shooing” people out the door mid meal.

“It keeps things so you’re able to pick up and leave if you have to,” she said. “We’re also not going to be having to grab your plates away from you.”

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