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Restaurant Association of Maryland wants state to allow barriers between tables for indoor dining

The Restaurant Association of Maryland said Gov. Larry Hogan’s recent order to expand indoor dining capacity to 75% doesn’t do enough to help struggling restaurants unable to pack their dining rooms with more customers due to existing distancing regulations.

Marshall Weston, the association’s president, is calling on the Maryland Department of Health to allow restaurants to install physical barriers between tables and booths to skirt the mandate requiring six-feet of distance between parties. Currently, every other indoor booth is required to be closed under the law to maintain social distancing under the health department’s most recent order.

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The state health department currently allows for plexiglass or other barriers in outdoor booth seating instead of satisfying the distancing requirements, but not indoors.

Ahead of the cooler fall and winter months that threaten outdoor dining, this tweak would enable many restaurants to expand capacity further, Weston said, as many restaurants don’t have space to comply with all of the requirements indoors and still expand capacity.

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“With these current table restrictions, many restaurants have found that they can’t even meet a 50% capacity of what they’re allowed to hold,” Weston said.

The association also is pushing the state’s health department to increase the current maximum of six people per table to 10, Weston said.

Maryland Department of Health spokesperson Charlie Gischlar said that the department “will evaluate whether additional operational changes are warranted as we move forward and the state’s health metrics continue to improve.” Gischlar also said there are no plans to increase the table maximum of six at this time.

Weston estimated that 40% of the state’s restaurants could close permanently by the end of 2020. Without this policy change in the cooler weather, many restaurants won’t be able to make it without laying off workers or closing their doors permanently, he said.

“Restaurants just want the opportunity to create a safe environment while increasing capacity at the same time to make up for the loss of outdoor dining and for a real shot to survive this pandemic through the end of the year,” Weston said.

Allowing barriers indoors would be beneficial for restaurants like The Rec Room in Towson, which currently has to close half of its indoor booths, said Sean Gahagan, the restaurant’s general manager. With barriers, it could use them all.

“It makes the politicians feel good to say we can go to 75%, but the reality of it is that you’re already pushing the limits of it at 50% because of social distancing,” Gahagan said. “So 50%, 75%, the number really isn’t going to change a whole lot just by going to 75%. Something else has to take place, such as barriers, so that we can increase the capacity of the restaurant.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s restaurant guidelines suggest barriers may help slow the spread of the virus in restaurants, especially in areas where six feet of distance is difficult to maintain.

The federal agency also recently released a study that found people who tested positive for the coronavirus were twice as likely to have been to a restaurant in the two weeks prior, as compared to those who tested negative.

Hogan’s order, which went into effect Monday, moved indoor dining capacity up to 75% from 50% during Maryland’s “Restaurant Week.

Not all jurisdictions are going along with the move, including Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County. Baltimore County announced it would allow restaurants to increase their capacity to 75% Monday.

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