Baltimore will close all dining at restaurants in the city to combat the spread of coronavirus, part of the first executive order from newly sworn-in Mayor Brandon Scott, who made the decisive move Wednesday on his first full day in office.
Tightened restrictions, which go into effect at 5 p.m. Friday, also include caps at 25% of capacity for retail and religious institutions, gyms, malls and museums.
While outdoor and indoor dining will be shut down, restaurants will still be able to offer carryout, drive-through and delivery service. The restriction does not have an end date.
Casinos will also be restricted to 25% of capacity in the city — a reduction from the 50% allowed until now — and all food and drink service inside will be halted.
“Indoor recreation establishments,” such as strip clubs and hookah bars, will be closed.
“That hookah bar can wait. That brunch can wait,” Scott said. “We have to keep our family and the people we love alive.”
Scott’s announcement came the same day Maryland reported a record number of people hospitalized due to COVID-19. More than 1,700 people are in Maryland hospitals because of the disease, and about 400 are in intensive-care units.
In Baltimore, 366 people are hospitalized for COVID-19, 90 of them in intensive care. On average, the city is reporting 37 new cases per 100,000 people each day, and its testing positivity rate is 7.3%.
Scott outlined the new restrictions during a news conference Wednesday, his first since being sworn in. During his inaugural address Tuesday, the Democrat said he would not “waver or hesitate” to make decisions regarding the virus that he believes will save lives.
Taking action less than 24 hours later, Scott wasted little time tightening restrictions.
“We have not had to implement such severe restrictions since the very earliest days of the pandemic,” said Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, Baltimore’s health commissioner, during the news conference. “Unfortunately, with the volume of new cases that we are seeing ... activities such as eating, drinking and smoking in close proximity to others should not continue.”
Scott’s order also limits other indoor gatherings at public and private facilities to 10 people, and outdoor gatherings at public and private facilities to 25 people. Sports gatherings are prohibited.
Questioned why casinos were allowed to remain open while restaurant dining was halted, Scott said suspending food and drink service for gamblers should eliminate reasons for them to remove their masks.
“They’re going to 25% [capacity] with no food and drink for now,” he said. “If Dr. Dzirasa and the health department continues to show that’s a problem, we will not be afraid to go further.”
Baltimore’s new restrictions are stricter than the statewide guidelines outlined by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
The governor has limited most indoor establishments to 50% capacity, and state rules permit indoor and outdoor dining until 10 p.m. each day.
But Baltimore City and the state’s counties can impose tougher limits. So far this fall, counties have scaled back to 25% capacity at various types of establishments, but none have suspended in-person dining.
Scott said Wednesday it would be “very helpful” for the governor to impose tighter restrictions statewide. He said he plans to meet with Hogan in the coming weeks and will make a plea to tighten restrictions part of the agenda.
Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci noted that state law grants local leaders the authority to implement more restrictive policies than state orders, if they deem them necessary.
“As the governor said earlier this week, we continue to monitor all of our key metrics and may take additional statewide actions as we move forward,” Ricci said.
Ricci said Hogan talked before Thanksgiving with then Mayor-elect Scott.
“We look forward to further discussions,” Ricci said.
Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Health Security, echoed Scott’s statement during the news conference in Baltimore.
“It would be useful, as we’ve seen in other parts of the country, for us to consider more restrictions on the things we know will make a difference,” he said. “Restaurants and bars are important.”
Jesse Sandlin, owner and chef of the newly opened Sally O’s in Highlandtown, said that when she heard the city would shut down outdoor dining as of Friday, her mind began racing with possible plans C, D and E for her eatery. She might deputize servers to do deliveries or begin offering Blue Apron-style meal kits.
“I really hope people order carryout food — and tip on it,” she said.
Sandlin said she was frustrated that outdoor dining, which public health experts say is safer than eating inside, was targeted. Since opening this year, Sally O’s hasn’t offered indoor dining — instead seating guests at tables along a sidewalk. Sandlin said the restaurant invested at least $10,000 on optimizing its outdoor space, including plants, a pergola and propane-fueled heaters.
Other restaurant operators echoed the frustration at seeing their hefty investments in outdoor dining equipment rendered useless. In a Facebook post, owners of Paulie Gee’s in Hampden said: “To close our outdoor setups, with no financial aid, is going to be a crushing blow.”
Scott defended his decision Wednesday.
“This is the right thing to do because this is about saving lives,” he said. “We know how tough it is.”
He said Democratic President-elect Joe Biden will improve coordination with cities to offer relief to the minimum-wage workers who staff many of the facilities the city is closing.
Gyms in the city had already been operating at 25% capacity, but the new restrictions will put an end to group fitness classes.
Donyel Cerceo, director of marketing for Merritt Athletic Clubs, called the change “worrisome.” An end to group fitness classes in Baltimore could mean a loss of members at its clubs in the city. During the pandemic, about half of Merritt members have already ended or frozen memberships at its gyms, located in the city and in Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Carroll counties, Cerceo said.
Participants in Merritt’s group fitness classes have been spaced 6 to 10 feet apart, according to Cerceo; a screen separates instructors and participants.
”We’re really just kind of scratching our head about this,” Cerceo said.
Scott participated later Wednesday in a virtual news conference with the county executives of the state’s seven largest counties to promote coordination on coronavirus restrictions.
“Our borders are porous,” said Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, a Democrat. “We are asking all of our residents to continue to work with us. … We have to work together.”
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, a Democrat, said he would make an announcement Thursday about further restrictions in his county.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said at the virtual news conference that he has sent a proposal to the county council to close indoor dining at restaurants and food courts and set new capacity limits for large retail stores, amateur sporting events and religious gatherings, starting at 5 p.m. Tuesday. The executive order, if approved, would limit grocery stores and large retailers to admitting no more than 150 people at a time.
“It is not over by a long shot,” said Scott. “We must make the tough sacrifices now.”
Baltimore Sun reporters Christine Condon, Alison Knezevich and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.