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Baltimore area restaurants face ‘hardest time’ yet amid coronavirus crisis as officials urge renewed restrictions

While public health officials are looking to staunch the rise of COVID-19 cases in Maryland by limiting indoor dining in the state, a trade association representing state restaurants warns that would further damage the economy.

And in the Baltimore area, where numerous eateries have already closed permanently because of the coronavirus, business owners say they worry their problems are about to get worse. They’re calling for government help.

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“I think this might be the hardest time,” said Helena del Pesco, chef and owner of Larder, a farm to table eatery in Old Goucher. “Everyone’s [Paycheck Protection Program loan] has run out. Grants have run out.”

Sergio Vitale, chef and owner of Aldo’s Ristorante Italiano in Little Italy, predicts a new wave of restaurant closures is soon to follow as businesses deplete their funding through the federally funded Paycheck Protection Program.

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On Monday, health officials sent a letter to the state’s deputy health secretary urging a moratorium on indoor dining in bars and restaurants, allowing only al fresco options and carryout.

The letter, signed by the health officers from Baltimore City and the counties of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s, cited increased daily case totals, transmission rates and hospitalizations in various jurisdictions.

In Baltimore, numerous restaurants have closed in recent weeks after employees tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Some health experts have said that proves indoor dining remains unsafe because of the risk of transmission of the coronavirus. Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young on Wednesday announced the city would suspend indoor dining for two weeks starting this Friday.

Dr. Tom Inglesby, a top infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University and adviser to Gov. Larry Hogan, criticized Hogan’s decision to reopen bars and restaurants in June. He pointed to states like Arizona, California, Florida and Texas, which had experienced spikes in cases after reopening. All have since reimposed restrictions on indoor dining.

Hogan said in an appearance on C-SPAN2 on Tuesday that it’s too soon to tighten restrictions.

“Our goal would be to try to keep business open and the economy unless it’s absolutely necessary,” he said.

In a statement, Marshall Weston Jr., CEO and president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said that “going backwards” in restaurants would badly hurt industry workers and the larger economy. “We believe that restaurants need to remain open for indoor dining to serve our customers and continue employing tens of thousands of Marylanders.”

While the organization agrees with the need to wear face coverings inside and to maintain social distancing, Weston wrote: “Restricting restaurants will not stop the spread of COVID, public responsibility will.”

Weston argued that restaurants are “going above and beyond” to provide a safe environment to guests and are “the only businesses reported in the media that have voluntarily closed when an employee has tested positive for COVID.”

Business owners have expressed frustration at the lack of consistent guidance from local governments when it comes to safety.

“We as restaurant owners have been put in the position of making public health decisions,” said del Pesco. “That’s not a fair thing to ask of restaurant owners.”

For example, it’s up to owners to decide whether to close if an employee tests positive for COVID-19, and if so for how long. State guidelines right now only recommend that restaurants offer single use menus and take other precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But implementation of those recommendations varies widely from place to place.

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“We’re playing a bit of Russian roulette if we don’t all operate by the same safety guidelines,” said Vitale. He thinks restaurants should be required to follow such guidelines, and penalized if they don’t. “If we’re going to open there should be some rules.”

At Aldo’s, staff take the temperature of guests as they arrive and sanitize seats between uses. “I still think we can do indoor dining safely,” said Vitale. He called it “a little draconian” to require restaurants to close again. “Obviously, the final judgment is going to be with health professionals.”

Vitale thinks some social distancing measures will be harder to enforce at bars than in restaurants. “For every drink you consume you lose one foot of social distancing,” he joked. “It’s a challenging thing when you’re in a bar setting.”

Both Vitale and del Pesco predict more hard times are to come for the industry. A $600 weekly supplement for unemployed workers wraps up this month, which del Pesco thinks could translate into more people spending less money in restaurants.

Carryout orders dropped at Larder once outdoor dining was permitted in Baltimore. While she avoided indoor dining at her small space, del Pesco opted to offer limited al fresco seating in the courtyard her business shares with neighboring Fadensonnen. Now, she says: “It’s so hot right now that nobody wants to sit outside.”

She’s shut down her cafe for three weeks while she brainstorms a path forward.

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