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Baltimore mayor eases coronavirus restrictions on nonessential retail, but won’t allow indoor dining

Baltimore Mayor Jack Young announces that nonessential retail businesses can reopen at 5pm tonight at 50 percent capacity. Restaurants will not reopen.

Baltimore allowed nonessential retail businesses to open for indoor sales at 50% capacity at 5 p.m. Friday, but Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young stopped short of allowing activities such as limited indoor dining that are now permitted statewide.

The city is not yet moving into phase two of Young’s three-phase plan for reopening following the coronavirus-related shutdowns, the mayor said during a Friday news conference.

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Young plans to evaluate the timeline for reopening Baltimore after analyzing the data between Memorial Day and the citywide protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died May 25 in police custody in Minneapolis after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

The mayor said he expects to announce a decision Wednesday.

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While the Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan for the state has allowed most businesses deemed nonessential to reopen, Young adopted a more conservative pace — which frustrated some business owners who say they’re losing revenue to competition in surrounding counties. Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties are all moving forward with the state’s next reopening phase, which allows indoor dining, gyms, casinos and malls to reopen over the next two weeks.

“I, more than almost anyone, would love to say Baltimore City is open and safe, but that simply is not what the data is telling us at this time,” the Democratic mayor said.

In the last week, Young said the city has seen an 8% increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases. And Baltimore Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa said city residents generally have more underlying chronic conditions than most other jurisdictions in Maryland. Some city ZIP codes are also disproportionately affected by case counts, she said.

“Coronavirus has not gone anywhere," Dzirasa said. “Instead of relaxing, the reopening of businesses should raise everyone’s level of vigilance.”

Young said he has heard rumors of restaurants planning to reopen indoor seating — though he didn’t provide specifics — and issued a stern warning that businesses will be shut down if they defy the local emergency order. Baltimore police and the Social Club Task Force will be inspecting restaurants and businesses for compliance throughout the weekend, he said.

“I will not put the residents of this city at unnecessary risk, nor will I open up restaurants for indoor dining if I don’t feel it’s safe for me and my family to be in one,” he said.

The mayor pointed to other American cities that have seen spikes in new cases after reopening, stating “I don’t want that to be on my hands.”

Young’s announcement on nonessential retail follows Hogan’s comments Wednesday that it was “absolutely absurd” small retail in the city had not been allowed to resume in-store operations. Shops are open in much of the state at 50% capacity under the Republican governor’s recovery plan.

“I think we might have a little chat with Mayor Young to see if he can move things along,” Hogan said at the time.

Young did not say whether he had spoken with the governor following those comments. The mayor has regular phone calls with state officials each week about COVID-19, a spokesman for the mayor’s office said Friday.

Dzirasa said Baltimore has “heard from our critics,” who have asked why the city is reopening more slowly than much of the state. City officials would like for one month to pass before transitioning into phase two in order to study how reopening has affected the case data and hospital utilization rates, she said.

“Baltimore City needs to continue to expand its testing capacity and specifically all of the necessary support staff to follow the state in reopening at the same pace they are setting," Dzirasa said.

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Nancy Longo, who has run Pierpoint Restaurant in Fells Point for more than three decades, said she has no issue with Baltimore restaurants being unable to serve customers indoors, though she understands why others would.

“I’m not angry at all,” Longo said. “Here’s my thing. I have a small restaurant that’s very, very tiny. It’s 13 feet wide. It’s 20 feet long. So if I open, that means I can let four people in. How in the hell is that going to help me financially?”

Longo added that she still fears for her health and that of others amid the pandemic. She has a diabetic employee, while Longo herself is a cancer survivor who deals with lymphatic issues and bronchitis. She said she recently called about 30 of her regular customers to ask whether they would feel comfortable dining indoors, and a majority said no.

“I don’t think the [virus] numbers are low enough,” Longo said.

Earlier in the week, city officials responded to the governor’s comments stating they were being mindful that the coronavirus has had a disproportionate impact on people of color, and the city is about 60% black.

“We all want to get back to a little bit of normal," Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, said at the time. "At the end of the day, science and medicine has to be our guiding post and the governor has gotten away from that a little bit.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Pamela Wood, Talia Richman and Nathan Ruiz contributed to this article.

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