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What will dining look like as Maryland lifts COVID capacity limits? For many restaurants, confusion and concern remain.

When the inevitable crowds of early St. Patrick’s Day revelers in Fells Point make their way to Max’s Taphouse this weekend, longtime bouncer Chuck Pollack and general manager Jason Scheerer will be waiting at the door.

Gov. Larry Hogan’s order this week lifting capacity limits at bars and restaurants in Maryland came with a key caveat: It left in place the masking and social distancing mandates, meaning establishments still must cap the number of people inside well below their normal occupancy limits.

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While Baltimore City plans to enforce stricter measures, restaurants across the state will face a predicament in explaining the governor’s rules to partiers who haven’t read the fine print — and already have started drinking.

Only a few patrons were sitting inside Mick O'Shea's Irish Pub on Wednesday. This week Gov. Larry Hogan lifts capacity limits at bars and restaurants in Maryland.
Only a few patrons were sitting inside Mick O'Shea's Irish Pub on Wednesday. This week Gov. Larry Hogan lifts capacity limits at bars and restaurants in Maryland. (Ulysses Muñoz)

“It’s going to be a mess,” Scheerer said. “In no way is this a regular St. Paddy’s Day. It shouldn’t be treated as such.”

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Max’s will continue to operate at Baltimore’s current 25% capacity limit for indoor dining, which Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott announced Thursday the city will seek to keep in place, despite the surrounding counties following Hogan’s urging to “fall in line” with the state’s lifted restrictions.

“We appreciate the opportunity [Hogan]’s trying to give everybody,” Scheerer said. “At the same time, we’re concerned about health risks and safety.”

The Republican governor’s order still limits bars and restaurants to spaced-out, seated table service — far from their typical full operations. The order caused some confusion and uncertainty, too, in part because it included language that revokes prior stricter capacity limits set by local officials in Baltimore and other areas that were based on the governor’s emergency orders. (The city plans to create a new local order based on the mayor’s emergency authority.)

Hogan cited steadily decreasing COVID-19 cases and deaths in lifting capacity limits.

“Our health metrics are great, and it’s time to get our economy going,” he said at a news conference Tuesday.

And while the restaurant workers who haven’t been laid off over the past year have been essential to operations during the pandemic, most aren’t among the 10% of Marylanders who have been vaccinated — and aren’t yet eligible. There’s no telling whether their customers are, either.

“We have to deal with customers who are unmasked, and we’ve been doing this from the start,” said Joan Dolina, owner of Arthouse, a Hampden pizza bar. She wants to see vaccinations become more widespread before welcoming more customers inside.

Samantha Claassen is operating Golden West Cafe nearby as carryout-only, and she’s OK with that for now. She called the governor’s order “reckless” and worried it could expose restaurant workers to the virus.

“Slow and steady wins the race,” she said. “I hope the mayor is going to slow-roll the reopening.”

COVID restrictions are taped to the bar at Mick O'Shea's Irish Pub on Wednesday, March 10, 2021.
COVID restrictions are taped to the bar at Mick O'Shea's Irish Pub on Wednesday, March 10, 2021. (Ulysses Muñoz)

Mick O’Shea’s Irish Pub in Mount Vernon typically would have a band and 200 people for St. Patrick’s Day, its busiest day of the year. It can’t accommodate half that crowd with social distancing.

“It’s tough having to enforce COVID laws and doing regular bartending on St. Patrick’s Day,” said bartender Andrew Opiela, 30, who lives in East Baltimore. “But we’re happy to be open.”

The governor’s announcement doesn’t change much for any of Drew Walston’s three Pub Dog restaurants in Columbia, Federal Hill and Westminster. While the Columbia location — which reopened Monday after an August 2019 natural gas explosion — can hold almost 250 people, with social distancing requirements he can only keep about 11 open tables and 15 bar seats.

“It has zero impact on what we’re allowed to do,” said Walston, the eateries’ director of operations. “It sounds great to increase capacity, but I can’t put any more tables in and no one’s allowed to stand up.”

The same goes for the Towson Diner, a York Road institution since 1957 where the remaining “skeleton crew” of 21 employees has been keeping every other booth open, owner Nick Kourtsounis said.

“You can’t sit every booth and have six-foot distancing,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

"You can't sit every booth and have six-foot distancing," said Towson Diner owner Nick Kourtsounis. "It doesn't make sense."
"You can't sit every booth and have six-foot distancing," said Towson Diner owner Nick Kourtsounis. "It doesn't make sense." (Colin Campbell/Baltimore Sun)

Even if it were possible, a few days’ notice is hardly enough time to hire and train new staff, he said. An initial Hogan supporter, Kourtsounis said he has been disappointed with the governor’s handling of the pandemic and saw this week’s announcement as “hogwash.”

“This is all smoke and mirrors,” he said. “It’s all how you spin it. You go in a press conference [and] say, ‘We’re allowing 100% capacity, but we’re not changing any restrictions.’ ... This stuff is infuriating.”

Margherita’s Italian restaurant in Bel Air is not ready to open for full indoor capacity, and it will remain at 50% for the time being, said co-owner Jama Argueta.

“In the weeks to come, we’ll see how we feel, and how the employees feel about it,” she said. “Everybody needs to feel comfortable.”

Katie-Marie Fickling was reluctant to reopen the Capital Lounge’s doors after the Upton restaurant transitioned to carryout-only last year. But its spacious upstairs and downstairs dining rooms helped assuage her concerns, and she said she’s prioritizing employees’ health and financial stability.

“We’re grateful for being able to work,” said Fickling, a partner. “We’re going to work until they tell us we can’t work any longer.”

Dante Liberatore, owner of Liberatore’s Ristorante in Eldersburg, welcomed Hogan’s announcement.

“We obviously welcome the lifting of the restraints,” he wrote in a text message. “Restaurants require a certain volume to pay for certain overhead that can’t be met unless a brisk volume is met.”

Dr. Leana Wen, a former Baltimore health commissioner, said she’s concerned about the state’s lack of coordination with local health officials.

“I truly don’t understand why local officials were not involved in the decision-making,” said Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University. “When there is lack of clarity, public trust is eroded. That is something we cannot afford at this time of public health emergency.”

Overall, Wen said, Hogan sent the wrong message at a precarious time in the pandemic, as more contagious variants of the virus are spreading.

“We are declaring victory when we are not nearly there yet,” she said.

Meanwhile, some businesses are struggling to find staff to expand operations after last year’s mass layoffs.

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“Pre-pandemic, I had 63 people on staff,” Golden West’s Claassen said. “We have 23 people right now.”

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In the past year, some former employees, running out of money and facing bleak job prospects, have moved back in with parents — and others have left the state.

Dolina was a social worker before she opened Arthouse. That training came to mind following Hogan’s announcement.

“A client would stop taking their antidepressants because they were feeling better,” she said. “The reason they were feeling better is because they were taking their antidepressants.”

Dolina worries that, just as the client relapsed into depression after ceasing medication, Hogan’s loosening of pandemic restrictions will prompt a new surge in coronavirus cases, especially since relatively few Marylanders — particularly restaurant workers — have been vaccinated.

“It boggles the mind that he decided to do this now,” she said.

Once Baltimore announces its additional restrictions, the city liquor board will hurry to share them with license-holders, said deputy executive secretary Nicholas Blendy.

Inspectors will be out en masse in the next two weekends and on St. Patrick’s Day to enforce the usual ordinances, as well as social distancing and whatever other orders might be in place as of 5 p.m. Friday, he said.

“We’ll do the best we can with the information that’s on the paper in front of us,” Blendy said.

Baltimore Sun Media reporters Ana Faguy, Pat Stoetzer and David Anderson contributed to this article.

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