Baltimore restaurants can resume indoor dining at 25% capacity starting at 5 p.m. Friday, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young announced Thursday, but other coronavirus-related restrictions will be tightened.
Two weeks ago, Young ordered eateries to suspend all indoor service in response to a spike in COVID-19 cases in the city and Maryland.
This gradual relaxing of the rule is an attempt to help restaurants weather the financial impact of the ongoing pandemic, though the city is still seeing troubling trends in both new cases and deaths.
“This reopening does not mean that we are in the clear as it relates to the pandemic, but rather that I want to support our residents facing extreme financial hardships as a result of working in the restaurant and service industry,” Young said in a statement.
Restaurants are still able to serve additional people with outdoor seating and offer carryout.
Public health experts have warned that the coronavirus spreads between people more easily when they are indoors, and that bars in particular pose a very high risk for transmission. Spokesman James Bentley said the mayor’s order only applies to restaurants, while bars are not cleared to reopen.
Young’s executive order also imposes other restrictions, all of which are stricter than what the state currently allows. They include:
- Outdoor gatherings capped at 25 people
- Indoor gatherings capped at 25% of occupancy or 25 people, whichever is lower
- Religious facilities capped at 25% of occupancy or 25 people, whichever is lower
- Retail establishments and malls capped at 25% of occupancy or 25 people, whichever is lower
- The Horseshoe Casino Baltimore capped at 25% of occupancy
- Indoor recreation establishments — such as bingo halls, bowling alleys, pool halls, roller and ice skating rinks — capped at 25% of occupancy or 25 people, whichever is lower.
“When we think about large gatherings, in particular, we know there’s an elevated risk of exposure and transmission,” said Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa, adding that she would advise people to still avoid dining indoors.
Maryland confirmed 579 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday, and Baltimore City remains among the most impacted jurisdictions. The city has added more than 4,500 new cases since the start of July, including more than 1,000 new cases in the past week, which bringing its total case count to 12,075 as of Thursday.
The city also has reported more than 400 deaths due to the virus, and its positivity rate remains higher than the statewide average.
Dr. Deborah Birx, of the White House coronavirus task force, warned Wednesday that Baltimore and a handful of other cities remain a serious concern.
“I have concerns as well,” Dzirasa said.
Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has capped indoor dining at 50% of capacity across the state, but has allowed harder-hit jurisdictions to enact more cautious restrictions. Worship services, malls and casinos also are limited to half-capacity statewide.
Hogan enabled local governments to take a patchwork approach to reopening, putting some in the tough position of straining their own jurisdictions’ businesses while those in neighboring localities operate under a more relaxed rules.
Health officers from Maryland’s five largest counties and Baltimore City sent Hogan a letter last month asking for statewide action to curb indoor dining. They wrote that they preferred a “unified, standardized approach to address this resurgence of cases.”
When that didn’t happen, Baltimore moved ahead on its own.
Dzirasa said the decision was “not one we made lightly,” adding that the city took into account the number of establishments that had to close after identifying positive cases among staff, and evaluating the danger that enclosed spaces with poor ventilation can pose.
A handful of city establishments have been cited by the Baltimore liquor board for violating coronavirus-related restrictions on crowds. Dzirasa said the health department monitors new data daily and will be looking in three to four weeks at how the new order may have impacted case counts.
Some business leaders immediately welcomed the news about the relaxations on indoor dining.
“The pandemic has been crushing for our restaurants,” said Colin Tarbert, CEO of the Baltimore Development Corp., in a statement. “Allowing for limited indoor dining is a step in the right direction to help keep them going during this time of distress. Baltimore needs to remain open for business.”
Tony Foreman, whose restaurant group owns several renowned dining establishments, called the 25% cap odd. His restaurants take the temperature of everyone who comes inside the building, including guests, staff and delivery people. They live their lives, he said, by a measuring tape that ensures tables are adequately spaced for social distancing.
“We’ll do what we’re able to do,” Foreman said about the resumption of some indoor dining.
But he remains concerned the city’s approach is “not being done intelligently enough to solve the problem and the numbers are going to go up anyway.”
For many small restaurants, Canton Community Association President Mark Edelson said, “the financial reality of hosting indoor dining at 25% capacity is simply not viable.”
“While we are cognizant of the recent countrywide rise in cases and hospitalizations and are not naive to the realities of the pandemic, we are also hopeful that Baltimore City will be able to safely increase the indoor dining capacity soon,” he said.
City Councilman Zeke Cohen likened Young’s actions to “splitting the baby,” referring to the biblical story in which King Solomon proposed settling a dispute between two women claiming to be a child’s mother by cutting the baby in half.
His Southeast Baltimore district has been disproportionately hard-hit by the virus, and is also home to a larger cluster of bars and restaurants.
“The very people we are purporting to help by allowing businesses to open will, in the longer term, be hurt further when their employees get sick and we are forced to shut down our entire economy again for a longer period because we opened too early,” Cohen said. “I understand the frustration, but I think there’s a real economic case for not opening indoor dining and seating.”
Young said he remains concerned about how quickly the virus is spreading within the community, which is why he reduced the allowable capacity for most gatherings.
He attributed his choice to allow for some indoor dining to “Congress’ inability to come to an agreement to provide relief and support for the people of our country.”
“Their inaction,” Young said, “has forced my hand.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Wilborn P. Nobles III contributed to this article.