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Baltimore County to further ease indoor dining restrictions, following state guidelines

Baltimore County will follow Gov. Larry Hogan’s Friday order that allowed restaurants in the state to expand indoor dining capacity from 50% to 75%, County Executive Johnny Olszewski announced Monday.

The move will require “appropriate distancing" and took effect at 5 p.m. Monday, according to a county news release. Businesses flouting face-covering or distancing mandates will “be held accountable,” Olszewski said in the release.

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“This dangerous disease is still with us and we must continue to follow public health guidance,” Olszewski said in the release. “We know that COVID-19 spreads more easily indoors than outdoors, so as we move forward today, we continue to urge residents to prioritize less risky activities in their support of restaurants, such as carry-out and outdoor dining.”

The county cited its 2.3% testing positivity rate in Monday’s release. That’s below the state’s seven-day testing positivity rate of 2.75%, a new low since March.

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When Hogan made the announcement Friday afternoon to expand the state’s indoor dining capacity, he did not cite any public health metrics, but mentioned the state’s first-ever “Restaurant Week,” which began Friday. Asked for his reasoning, Hogan’s spokesman Mike Ricci cited declining hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions, which also are at lows not seen since March.

The move came just over a week after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study that found adults who tested positive for the virus were twice as likely to have dined at a restaurant in the past two weeks, compared to those who tested negative.

As with Hogan’s previous reopening guidance, local leaders have the authority to move more slowly than the state.

With the cold winter months ahead making outdoor dining more difficult, many restaurants in Baltimore County wouldn’t have been able to survive without expanded indoor dining, said Nancy Hafford, executive director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce.

“We’re very grateful that they’re opening them up, but we need people to feel comfortable coming into restaurants,” Hafford said.

Not every restaurant, she added, will be able to expand to 75% capacity due to distancing requirements that limit indoor space.

Ocean Pride Seafood Restaurant in Lutherville is among the restaurants for which the expansion to 75% capacity will have little to no effect. Due to the 6-foot distancing requirements, it won’t be able to add any more tables but still will offer outdoor seating, according to general manager Katie Mersom.

The restaurant — which sees demand fluctuate in conjunction with crab season — has suffered during the pandemic.

“It has killed us,” Mersom said. “We’re hoping that by March this upcoming year, things will be a little back to normal so we can have a profitable season again next year.”

Justin Windle, of Pappas Restaurant and Sports Bar in Cockeysville, said the indoor dining expansion will be good for business, especially for the colder months ahead. The restaurant doesn’t have many tables for its outdoor dining due to space limitations, but it has been a “welcome addition.”

Early on in the pandemic, sales fell by half, said Windle, adding that the restaurant managed to stay afloat due to its carry-out business.

“We’ve been fortunate that we have such a great customer base that have supported us ever since we closed down,” Windle said.

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As indoor dining has reopened in stages across the county, Windle has seen people slowly becoming more comfortable dining out, whether indoor or outdoor, a significant change from the spring and early summer. The move to open to 75% capacity will help more people feel comfortable, he said.

Not all Baltimore-area jurisdictions have followed Hogan’s order.

Baltimore City, which opened indoor dining to half capacity Sept. 8 and has opened more slowly than the state, said it would not go forward with expanding indoor dining capacity, saying it didn’t have enough data to do so “responsibly.”

Chris Trumbauer, a senior advisor to Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, also told The Baltimore Sun Friday that the county won’t yet expand indoor dining.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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