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Baltimore to suspend indoor dining at bars and restaurants, expand mask requirements as COVID-19 cases rise

Baltimore Mayor Jack Young announces the suspension of indoor dining at bars and restaurants and expanded mask requirements as COVID-19 cases rise.

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young on Wednesday ordered city restaurants to suspend indoor dining by the end of the week and announced expanded requirements for face coverings.

Young, a Democrat, is among a group of local leaders pushing for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to take statewide action and renew certain dining restrictions in an attempt to curb the recent spike in coronavirus cases. The city is now moving ahead on its own.

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“I have always said we would continue to monitor the data and not hesitate to tighten restrictions if the data tell us it’s needed,” Young said in a virtual news conference following the weekly Board of Estimates meeting Wednesday.

Baltimore restaurants and bars will be required to suspend indoor dining for at least two weeks, starting at 5 p.m. Friday. The city health department will review COVID-19 data daily to monitor whether the suspension will continue after that period. Eateries can continue serving customers outside and offering takeout and delivery.

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The city will also require all people over the age of 2 to wear face coverings in public, Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said.

But the health commissioner clarified that the mask order applies to outdoor situations in which people are unable to social distance, like a cookout or a barbecue.

“When you’re walking your dog and are not around people, no mask is required,” she said.

In a grim irony, the end of indoor dining coincides with the start of Baltimore Restaurant Week, a semiannual event meant to boost revenues at restaurants.

A spokesman for organizer the Downtown Partnership said in a statement that the event would still happen but be limited to outdoor dining and carryout meals.

One business scheduled to participate was CookHouse, a Bolton Hill bistro that opened in February, just one month before it closed for COVID-19.

“It’s very challenging, as you probably can imagine,” said owner George Dailey. On the plus side, the restaurant has a patio, where staff will continue to serve its smash burgers and steak frites after Friday. Many guests already preferred to eat al fresco. “Outside, people are happy, so we’re just going to continue this way, weather permitting.”

The limitation on outdoor dining falls in line with what many public health experts have been recommending. On Monday, health officials from the state’s five largest counties wrote Maryland’s deputy health secretary urging a stop to indoor dining in bars and restaurants.

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a vice dean in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, a former state health secretary and Baltimore city health commissioner, praised Young’s decision as “a sensible action to make sure Baltimore doesn’t turn into the next Miami or Houston.” Both cities have seen recent surges in cases since reopening. He said there is strong evidence that bars in particular pose a very high risk for transmission.

Others felt independent restaurants have been unfairly singled out among businesses.

“People are all right going to Target, Walmart and grocery stores,” said Chris Amendola, chef and owner of Foraged, a “hyper-seasonal eatery” in Hampden. On a recent foraging expedition, he witnessed a group of 200 or so people splashing in the Patapsco, none wearing masks. “Restaurants aren’t the problem,” he said.

Like many business owners, Amendola faces an uncertain future, having already spent loans received through the federally funded Paycheck Protection Program. “I don’t even know what to do anymore.”

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Foraged had been offering indoor dining at half capacity since the city began allowing it last month, a move he said had been allowing the business to stay afloat. Without it, he’s limited to three outdoor tables — and few of his guests are eager to eat outside in the heat.

Mother’s Grille owner Dave Rather supported Young’s decision to shut down indoor dining. “It’s something we need to do in this city even though it hurts,” he said. “We all gotta do our part.”

The restaurant in Federal Hill had already stopped offering indoor dining last weekend given the rise in COVID-19 cases among industry workers in the area. Several Canton bars and restaurants shut down amid a spike in cases there.

Rather declined to say whether members of his staff had tested positive. Restaurants are not legally required to shut down when an employee tests positive, a fact some have said contributes to the spread of the virus.

In Baltimore, the average daily case count nearly doubled in the week between July 4 and July 12, after the city transitioned into a second phase of its reopening plan, Dzirasa said.

The city is conducting an average of over 2,000 COVID-19 tests daily, the health commissioner said. The jump in cases is greater than what officials expected to see simply from increases in testing capacity.

The 21224 ZIP code alone, which includes neighborhoods such as Canton, Highlandtown, and Patterson Park, has seen cumulative positivity rates as high as 22% among city residents, she said. People between ages 20 and 39 have had the highest rates of new cases and the highest test positivity rates. Fatalities have remained somewhat steady.

The city’s actions regarding masks are similar to those taken Tuesday by Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.

But while Olszewski called on Hogan, a Republican, to limit indoor dining statewide, the Democratic county executive said he would not issue a local restriction for restaurants because of concerns about how it would impact businesses.

Dzirasa said in an interview that the city’s demographics are different from the county’s, and a local suspension on indoor dining makes sense in Baltimore.

“We need to be extremely mindful of how the city is set up, and the density of bars and restaurants, compared to other jurisdictions,” she said.

Olszewski, meanwhile, “continues to believe that a unified, statewide approach is the best way to ensure public health efforts are most effective,” said Sean Naron, a spokesman for Olszewski.

The county executive also believes a statewide approach will minimize confusion for residents and will avoid putting small businesses at a competitive disadvantage.

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”If the governor does not act, we’ll continue conversations with neighboring jurisdictions and do what’s best for our residents,” Naron said.

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Dzirasa said the city would be looking for its case counts to go down “significantly” before considering lifting new restrictions. She is hopeful that Hogan will heed the advice of local health officials and institute statewide restrictions on dining.

Some business owners, like Rather, who operates branches of Mother’s in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, think it’s just a matter of time.

But Hogan said Wednesday he doesn’t plan to tighten restrictions.

“We do not intend to suddenly close all of our small businesses,” he said in a press conference. “We do not want to crush our economy.”

The total number of coronavirus cases in Maryland surpassed the 80,000 mark Wednesday, with state health officials reporting 627 new cases of the illness.

The rise brings Maryland’s infection total to 80,172 confirmed cases.

While Hogan acknowledged ”concerning trends” of high positivity rates among people under 35 as well as an uptick in recent COVID hospitalizations, he said the solution was stricter enforcement by local governments of social distancing guidelines.

And he encouraged individuals to continue wearing masks when supporting local businesses: “No shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service. It’s really not that hard.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Wilborn P. Nobles III contributed to this article.

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