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A mix of apprehension, cabin fever drive foot traffic to stores as parts of Baltimore area reopen

Small stores begin to reopen under Gov. Larry Hogan's executive order eases some coronavirus-related restrictions.

Patti Wade had hardly left her Harford County home since March 12, but with retailers and other “nonessential” businesses allowed to open for the first time in nearly two months, she eagerly hit Main Street in Bel Air on Saturday.

She went in and out of as many shops as she could, sticking to those that were following directives to limit capacity and require masks. When she visited Tiny Toes, a children’s store, to buy a ball, she also picked up child-sized masks for her nieces and nephews.

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“I’m still very hesitant to do certain things, but supporting the local businesses, I felt the need to get out and walk Main Street and walk into all the stores,” she said. “They are our friends and neighbors.”

Maryland started its first phase of economic reopening in earnest Saturday, after a statewide “safer at home” advisory replaced Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s March 30 stay-at-home executive order as of Friday evening. Hogan also lifted some business restrictions in place since mid-March, allowing nonessential retailers, barber shops and salons to open to the general public at limited capacity.

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Those restrictions, as well as others that remain in place, were implemented to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The governor cited declining COVID-19 hospitalizations to justify the relaxed restrictions, though close to 1,000 new cases continue to be confirmed daily, and about 50 Marylanders are dying every day, on average.

“For most counties in Maryland, it’s the first full day of Stage One of recovery— and a gorgeous day to practice social distancing,” Hogan tweeted Saturday.

In Carroll and Harford counties, two of the jurisdictions where the “stage one” restrictions end, a mix of apprehension and cabin fever drove moderate foot traffic Saturday to various businesses. But there were also signs that some in the region feel more ready to get back to normal than others.

In downtown Westminster on a beautiful spring Saturday afternoon, there appeared to be no more people on the sidewalks than there were Friday, before stay-at-home protocols eased. Motorists had their choice of parking spaces on Main Street. Just one business had a line of people queuing on the sidewalk: American Ice Co. Cafe, where masked customers awaited curbside delivery.

There was one key difference, though: For the first time in months, nearly every store had an “open” sign in the window.

In Baltimore, where Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young has extended a stay-at-home order and nonessential businesses remain closed, police said they received some 60 calls about “illegal gatherings" Friday night and Saturday, “more than we’ve received in the past,” Detective Donny Moses said.

Police believe that was largely because while Hogan relaxed restrictions at the state level, Young kept them in place in the city, Moses said.

In one video shared on social media, lines could be seen stretching down the street Friday night at Hip Hop Fish and Chicken on Reisterstown Road, as groups of dirt bikers passed by. Moses said police responded to calls of disorderly conduct there, but did not issue any citations.

Most business activity also remains restricted in the counties of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard, where leaders said the coronavirus remains too prevalent to safely start returning to normal.

But in Harford and Carroll, many residents and small business owners were eager to take advantage of their county leaders agreeing with Hogan to relax restrictions.

To Bel Air resident Casey Hardenbrook, the reopening of Main Street shops was welcome, even perhaps overdue. While he recognized the virus’ seriousness, he said shuttering local businesses made little sense while big box stores like Target could remain open. It has devastated them economically, and with proper preventative measures, Hardenbrook sees little threat of them spreading the virus in the community.

“We could open a lot sooner or even more than what we are doing, based off our statistics,” he said as he shopped Saturday. “But a little is better than none.”

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At Pomeroy’s Jewelers in Westminster, Bentley, a tan and white American bulldog, enthusiastically greeted the first customers to the store he’s seen in two months.

Down the block, a steady stream of visitors wandered into the Cultivated gift shop to greet owner Tiombe Paige like the old friend she is. They got caught up while browsing for bangles and books. But Paige had removed most of the comfy chairs and sofas that in pre-pandemic days encouraged customers to linger.

”We spent a lot of time thinking,” Paige said, “about how we could encourage the flow of customers to keep people safe while preserving the same friendly feel that we’ve always had.”

And at Flourish Beauty Studio, owners Jennifer Shinderman and Heather Smith clipped the hair of a husband-and-wife couple who booked the first appointment they could get.

Shinderman said, ”To say that we’re excited to be open is an understatement.

”For Heather and me, this isn’t just a hair salon. It’s a mission. So much of people’s identities is tied up in the way their hair looks. To be prevented from exercising what you’re gifted at doing has been challenging.”

At Daughters Cafe in Hampstead, owner Michelle Long was so eager to get back to work, she opened her dining room Saturday morning at half capacity, even though restaurant service remains restricted to carryout and delivery across the state.

She said adapting her business to sell takeout cost her thousands of dollars, and she was desperate to prove customers could visit while remaining at a safe distance from one another.

“I’m a little guy. I don’t have a bunch of money behind me,” she said. “What’s going to happen when the utility company says, ‘Hey, you owe thousands of dollars?' Where am I going to come up with that if I don’t do something?”

But her experiment only lasted about two hours, until she said she got a call from Hampstead police advising her she was in violation of Hogan’s executive orders. She got back to her carryout business instead.

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