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After confusion, Baltimore will allow movie theaters to reopen but still move more slowly than state in coronavirus recovery

Young said that while parts of the state may feel ready for more reopening steps, in Baltimore, “We do not want to erase the gain we’ve made in the past month.”

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said Wednesday that the city won’t move into Stage Three of the coronavirus recovery plan announced by the governor, although it will loosen restrictions further in some areas, including restaurants and movie theaters.

Gov. Larry Hogan announced Tuesday that Baltimore City and the state’s counties could allow all businesses to reopen, including theaters, and permit more people to attend indoor events, such as worship services.

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Young said at a news conference Wednesday that while parts of the state may feel ready for more reopening steps, in Baltimore, “we do not want to erase the gains we’ve made over the past month.”

Local jurisdictions have the authority to be more restrictive than the state. Hogan did not give local jurisdictions a heads-up that he was lifting restrictions Tuesday, leaving them to scramble to figure out how to respond.

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The city will allow restaurants to open further for indoor dining at 50% of their capacity at some point next week, Young said during a Wednesday morning press conference. The details still were being ironed out, and no updated executive order was published.

City officials went back and forth Wednesday over whether to allow movie theaters to open. Originally, Young said nothing would change for now. Then, around 10 p.m., a city spokesman confirmed that theaters will be allowed to open Friday to 25% of their capacity.

It’s unclear what other restrictions could be loosened, with Young saying more information would be coming at a later date.

The state is moving to allow all businesses to open, subject to local restrictions, including movie theaters and live entertainment venues. The establishments can open at 50% capacity, or up to 100 people at indoor venues and 250 at outdoor venues — whichever is less. Places of worship can increase capacity from 50% to 75%.

In the city, still operating under Young’s Aug. 7 executive order, restaurants can offer outdoor service and 25% indoor capacity. Indoor and outdoor gatherings are capped at 25 people. Religious institutions and indoor recreation establishments cannot exceed 25% of their capacity.

Hogan’s plan doesn’t exactly match the road map the state released in late April. The riskiest activities were not supposed to resume until there was a vaccine or “effective therapeutics” to treat people sick with COVID-19. Those activities include large-scale gatherings, the opening of “high capacity” bars and entertainment venues, returning to regular visitation policies at hospitals and large religious gatherings.

The governor said Tuesday that the plan has been “evolving” as more is learned about the virus.

The web of shifting regulations has been confusing for businesses and residents, who are getting mixed messages from the governor and their local leaders. Some business owners have complained that the patchwork approach puts them at a disadvantage.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., for example, announced Wednesday afternoon that he will allow enclosed and outdoor theaters to reopen Friday, along with allowing retail and religious facilities to expand their indoor capacity.

He said his decision to align with the state is an attempt to make sure Baltimore County businesses are not on “unequal playing fields” compared to those in surrounding jurisdictions that chose to follow Hogan’s lead like Harford County.

Within minutes of Hogan’s announcement Tuesday night, the Senator Theatre in Baltimore City announced a Friday night showing of Christopher Nolan’s film “Tenet.” Shortly after Young’s news conference, though, the advertisement disappeared from the theater’s website.

Then, later Wednesday night, the theater wrote in a Facebook post that it would open Friday, with “very limited” seating and a slew of safety measures in place.

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“Some people would say that it’s not worth opening for 25 people, and that’s a valid financial argument,” said Kathleen Lyon, co-owner of the Senator and Charles theaters. ”But we are going to do it because we would like to turn the lights on. We have spent the last six months working for this day. We have done the upgrades and updated all the systems to keep people safe and we’re ready to go.”

Lyon said she’s not trying to defy Young. She interpreted his Aug. 7 executive order, which allows indoor recreation establishments to operate at 25% capacity, to now apply to her business.

City solicitor Dana Moore said around 9 p.m. Wednesday night that her interpretation was that movie theaters could not yet reopen. Earlier in the evening, city spokesman James Bentley said that “like anybody else that opens in opposition of the mayor’s executive order, enforcement will look into it.”

The mayor reversed course about an hour later, and will allow theaters to open up.

Lyon said Labor Day weekend is traditionally one of the biggest weekends of the year for the film industry, and that if theaters in Baltimore are closed, people “will just go a few miles down the road and see it in another county.”

Michael Ross, executive director of Baltimore Center Stage, described the back-to-back announcements as “a whirlwind.”

“One day, we’re open,” he said, “and the next day, we’re not.”

He’s not sure if the announcement will have an immediate impact on Baltimore’s official state theater, which has no live performances scheduled until January.

”It does give us hope that the state is moving to Stage 3, even if the city is not,” he said. “The most important thing is that the numbers keep coming down and we can get back to performing safely.”

Business owners have pressured Young to move more quickly, even as public health officials urge restraint. There’s a higher risk of coronavirus transmission in indoor settings.

Baltimore’s pace has drawn ire from vocal restaurant owners. Sergio Vitale, chef and owner of Aldo’s Ristorante Italiano in Little Italy, said Young’s decision puts the mayor “behind the curve again.”

Young said Wednesday that it was important to focus on “harm reduction” from the coronavirus while heading into the Labor Day holiday weekend, and he sought to discourage families from holding cookouts or other parties.

“We’re still in a pandemic,” the mayor said, “one that’s built to spread rapidly in large groups.”

Baltimore’s coronavirus data recently has been trending in a positive direction, but the pandemic still has hit the city hard with more than 14,500 confirmed cases and 428 deaths. It was only last month that the White House singled out Baltimore as one of the nation’s areas of concern for an outbreak.

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Recognizing that the pandemic continues to bring economic devastation, Young also on Wednesday announced an expansion of the city’s rental assistance fund.

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The $30 million eviction prevention program builds on efforts announced earlier this year, and is slated to start in late September.

The program is designed to cover six months of back rent and utilities or to relocate families. It also will go toward paying for legal services for tenants facing eviction. Families can apply at bmorechildren.com.

To qualify, households must bring in 50% or less of the average medium income, demonstrate a COVID-19 related financial hardship and provide proof of pending eviction proceedings.

The program draws from federal coronavirus relief funding, as well as city money. It includes $2.75 million from the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

Officials say the help comes at a dire time. The percentage of city residents who are falling behind on rent exploded from 10% in March to 28% in June. Advocates have warned of a looming “evictions crisis” as courts reopen.

The Trump administration issued a directive last month halting the eviction of certain renters through the end of 2020. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention followed up Tuesday by declaring that no landlord shall evict any “covered person” for failure to pay rent. To qualify, renters have to meet certain criteria, including showing they sought government assistance to make their rent payments.

Officials said local courts still would resolve disputes between renters and landowners about whether the moratorium applies in a particular case.

Baltimore’s program goes further, by helping tenants to pay back rent, rather than pushing back when it is due.

Acting Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy joined the mayor to make the announcement. Kennedy took over the department late last month after Young’s surprise firing of longtime city official Michael Braverman. The upheaval shocked residents, who said Braverman played an integral part in the fight against homelessness during the pandemic.

Asked Wednesday about why Braverman was let go, Young said: “We are not discussing any personnel decisions.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Mary Carole McCauley and Christina Tkacik and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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