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Baltimore to lift COVID capacity restrictions on restaurants, houses of worship, gyms and stores

Baltimore will lift coronavirus restrictions on restaurants and numerous other facilities, bringing the city closer to being in line with much of the rest of the state, Mayor Brandon Scott announced Wednesday.

Beginning at 6 a.m. Monday, capacity restrictions will be lifted at many establishments. The exceptions — which will be held to 50% of capacity — are convention and banquet facilities; indoor venues that host live performances, movies and games; and outdoor venues that sell tickets, Scott said.

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That means houses of worship, stores, indoor and outdoor recreation sites, gyms and casinos in Baltimore can fully open.

Until now, Baltimore has maintained some of the strictest limits in Maryland. When Republican Gov. Larry Hogan ended capacity limits at restaurants and allowed large indoor and outdoor venues to allow up to 50% capacity in March, the Scott administration continued to require city restaurants to operate at 50% capacity for indoor dining and 75% capacity outdoors. Churches, shops, rec centers and other places were limited to half capacity.

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Scott’s latest order will lift restrictions on gatherings. Patrons inside restaurants will still be required to be seated, but standing patrons can be served outdoors, he said.

After Scott’s announcement Wednesday, Hogan announced a further loosening of statewide restrictions, extending a disparity between Baltimore and much of the rest of the state. Effective Saturday, the state is lifting capacity restrictions on indoor and outdoor venues. That includes outdoor entertainment, as well as art and sports venues. Indoor and outdoor dining will be allowed to resume normal operations without any distancing requirements, Hogan said.

Local jurisdictions can enact stricter limits than the state’s on businesses and gatherings.

In the city, the Baltimore Orioles have voluntarily restricted attendance at Oriole Park at Camden Yards to 25% capacity since the season began in April. Although Scott’s new order would allow the team to expand to 50% capacity, the team has not announced plans to exceed its current limit.

When the team announced the initial cap, it said it would “consider increasing ballpark capacity” with an eye on public health and safety. The Orioles have not sold tickets yet for games beyond May 31.

A spokesman for the Maryland Jockey Club said he’s heard of no plans to release more tickets for Saturday’s Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. Attendance is limited to 10,000.

City Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa credited the city’s increasing vaccination rate for the decision to lift restrictions. As of Wednesday, nearly 32% of residents were fully vaccinated.

While Baltimore has maintained stricter limitations during much of the pandemic than the state at large, Scott followed the governor’s lead last month when he announced that masks would no longer be required in most outdoor settings. Face coverings are still required in Maryland at “large ticketed venues” that are outdoors, such as stadiums, as well as at indoor businesses and on transit.

As of this week, the state’s COVID testing positivity rate dropped to its lowest level since last fall, as have other metrics state officials use to track the pandemic. On Wednesday, the seven-day average testing positivity rate was 2.74%, the lowest it’s been since Sept. 29.

In Baltimore, the seven-day average testing positivity rate was 2.8% as of Wednesday. The daily case count was 45% lower than four weeks ago and the number of deaths was 6% lower.

Alex Smith, whose Atlas Restaurant Group owns more than a dozen eateries in Baltimore, said that although he will be able to seat more customers now, the loosened restrictions wouldn’t fundamentally alter how his businesses operate.

“From a safety standpoint, nothing’s going to be changed,” he said. Tables will remain 6 feet apart and servers and patrons will wear masks inside. Still, Smith called the announcement “a step in the right direction.”

Papi Cuisine owner Alex Perez said he has no plans to fill his restaurant, which recently moved to South Baltimore, to its 140-person capacity, out of consideration for staff and for guests who feel uncomfortable in crowded areas. After fewer than two weeks at the new location, his employees are also still getting the hang of things at the space, he said.

“We want to make sure that we can handle the traffic that we receive,” he said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Childs Walker, Jon Meoli and Christina Tkacik contributed to this article.

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