You’ll soon be able to eat and drink again in Baltimore’s bars and restaurants. But don’t take all day.
Six weeks after shutting down on-premise dining in all city restaurants, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott announced that eateries can reopen for indoor and outdoor dining at limited capacity beginning at the end of the week. But diners will be limited to one hour, and must sign their names upon entering and leaving.
In a news conference at Park Height’s Zeta Center, Scott cited the city’s declining coronavirus caseload and a decrease in hospitalizations for lifting the ban. He noted Wednesday that Baltimore has the lowest seven-day average positivity rate in the state, at 5.65%.
“Let’s keep it that way,” Scott added.
Under the new rules, bars and breweries that don’t serve food also will be able to reopen for the first time since they were shuttered by previous Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young in November.
The loosened restrictions go into effect Friday morning at 6 a.m. Restaurants and bars will be limited to 50% capacity outside and 25% capacity indoors. Experts say the risk for coronavirus transmission is far greater inside, as the disease is spread through the air and through respiratory droplets.
Restaurants also will be asked to assist with contact tracing efforts, maintaining sign in and sign out sheets for guests.
The loosening of restrictions was met with a mix of gratitude and grumbles from restaurant owners. Some argued the one-hour time limit would be difficult to manage. Others said the capacity restrictions still make operating cost prohibitive.
In addition to the new rules on dining, Scott issued the following guidelines on other leisure activities:
- Gyms can hold socially distanced classes with 10 people or fewer, with masks required for participants
- Indoor recreation sites such as bowling alleys, indoor pools and VFW posts can reopen at 25% capacity, with the exception of adult entertainment facilities as well as hookah and cigar lounges. Tobacco shops may resume retail operations but not on-premise consumption.
- Outdoor gatherings are limited to 25% capacity; indoor gatherings are capped at 10%
Scott also clarified the city’s position on tents, which some restaurants have used to shelter guests outside. To qualify as outdoor spaces, those structures must have all flaps open. Public health experts have said that such tents, if fully enclosed, could be more dangerous than inside spaces because they lack ventilation systems.
On-premise dining has been forbidden in Baltimore since early December when Scott introduced a ban during his first week in office amid surging coronavirus cases statewide. Since then, the mayor has monitored coronavirus rates that have decreased on the whole, but saw several troubling spikes following the Christmas and New Year’s Eve holidays. Just last week, the mayor said it was still too soon to reopen the city’s restaurants.
City Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa said Wednesday that hospitalizations, fatalities and coronavirus case counts are trending downward, although she encouraged continued caution.
“We are cautiously optimistic that we may have reached a tipping point,” she said.
Restaurants have been allowed to continue takeout and delivery service since December, but the ban has been criticized widely by city restaurant owners and employees who have operated under some restrictions since March. Some restaurant owners had complained that since Baltimore County restaurants are at half capacity, the restrictions were effectively just driving business from the city to the suburbs.
The Restaurant Association of Maryland sued the city last month in a quest to reopen restaurants. While acknowledging the hardships faced by small businesses, Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill ultimately upheld the city’s restrictions last week, calling them “a matter of life and death.”
Scott recently met virtually with restaurant owners to discuss the dining ban, and said Wednesday that he appreciated “the candor and the bluntness of the conversation.”
The new time limit on dining was a concern for several city restaurant owners.
“Do you know how hard it’s going to be to turn a table in an hour?” said Jesse Sandlin of Sally O’s.
Most guests who come to her Highlandtown restaurant stay at least an hour and a half or even two or more. She balked at the limitations on outdoor dining, and wondered if customers would even want to sit outside in the cold.
But, she added: “You gotta be grateful for the good things right now and this is a good thing.”
A few owners have opted to temporarily shut down their businesses rather than attempt to eke out a living on carryout orders and limited capacity. Among them is Gunther & Co., a Canton restaurant that closed just after Thanksgiving. After Wednesday’s announcement, co-owner Nancy Trice said she would stay closed. The new 25% cap on indoor dining would limit her restaurant to 50 people inside, including staff. It’s still more strict than statewide guidelines outlined by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, which allow indoor and outdoor dining at 50% capacity until 10 p.m. each day.
“That does not give me enough public to warrant the staffing that it would require to open the building,” she said. “We need 50% occupancy to open.”
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Alex Smith, whose Atlas Restaurant Group was listed as a plaintiff in the restaurant association lawsuit, said that in light of Scott’s announcement, he planned to reopen his Baltimore eateries Thursday of next week.
“It just takes up a week to retrain staff and get people going again,” he said.
In order to comply with the hourlong restriction, Smith said, his staff will look to create a “fast tracked menu” to allow multiple courses to be served and eaten in under 60 minutes.
Smith said his restaurants won’t be profitable at 25% capacity, but his focus was on bringing workers back to their jobs.
“I’m just happy that were able to get back open … and get employees back to work,” he said.
A previous version of this article included incorrect information on the capacity limits for gym classes. They must be limited to 10 people. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.