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Restaurateurs gather to urge Baltimore Mayor Scott to roll back dining restrictions; others accept that they’ll have to adapt

Representatives of Baltimore restaurants speak out against the new mayor's order to shut down all indoor and outdoor dining, calling it rushed and arbitrary.

When Charlie Gjerde heard last week that Baltimore’s new mayor, Brandon Scott, was going to shut down indoor and outdoor dining to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, he first thought about the employees at the five restaurants he owns in the city. He dreaded breaking more bad news.

“It’s two weeks before Christmas. I’ve had to lay people off. I’ve had to cut hours,” said Gjerde, who owns Alexander’s Tavern in Fells Point, Wicked Sisters in Hampden, Huck’s American Craft in Brewers Hill and Papi’s Tacos, which has two locations.

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Though he appreciates the urgency that the unprecedented public health emergency requires, Gjerde said he was frustrated that Scott’s mandate applied to outdoor dining. He said his restaurants took seriously customer safety and wondered how his operation was any different from a casino or a gym, which have been allowed to continue operating at reduced capacity.

“It seems a little capricious,” Gjerde said.

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Gjerde was part of a group of restaurateurs representing about 30 restaurants who gathered before a gaggle of cameras Monday afternoon in Fells Point to express their displeasure with Scott’s new restrictions and to urge him to reverse course. Thiru Vignarajah, who ran in the Democratic primary against Scott, organized the news conference, during which the frustrations of several restaurant owners became clear.

The group said Scott rushed into the latest restrictions without consulting restaurant owners, that his order was hypocritical because it allowed other types of businesses to keep welcoming patrons, and that the effects would be “catastrophic.” The restaurateurs called for the city to help with rent, licensing and fees.

Vignarajah, a former deputy Maryland attorney general, said Scott’s move risks legal ramifications.

Thiru Vignarajah, left, former mayoral candidate and former deputy attorney general, is joined by representatives of nearly three dozen Baltimore restaurants during a news conference Monday in Fells Point to speak out against City Hall's rushed and arbitrary shutdown orders of all indoor and outdoor dining.
Thiru Vignarajah, left, former mayoral candidate and former deputy attorney general, is joined by representatives of nearly three dozen Baltimore restaurants during a news conference Monday in Fells Point to speak out against City Hall's rushed and arbitrary shutdown orders of all indoor and outdoor dining. (Kenneth K. Lam)

In a statement released by his office Monday night, Scott maintained that his difficult decision was guided by science and at the advice of the experts.

“The city’s response is focused on the highest-risk activities where mask wearing is not possible, like dining, drinking and smoking, at a time when hospitals are at 88% capacity and community spread is entirely too high,” Scott said. “I feel for our restaurant owners and workers who are impacted by this decision, and will continue to encourage our community to pull together and support these restaurants through carry-out and delivery this holiday season.”

Scott added that the Baltimore Development Corporation and the city, through the economic development agency, have issued grants totaling almost $8.4 million to restaurants, carryout establishments, bars and taverns. He assured Baltimore “will continue to push our federal and state leadership to provide even more support to our restaurants.”

Shortly before the frustrated restaurateurs huddled under a roof outside Abbey Burger Bistro, the Maryland Department of Health released more grim data about the surging virus. As of Monday morning, 236,961 people had contracted the virus and 4,978 had died from the disease it causes, COVID-19.

Some 1,700 people are hospitalized with complications from the virus, about 400 of whom are in intensive care. Despite having open beds, hospitals fear more hospitalizations could challenge their capacities.

Scott hosted his own news conference Friday to defend the decision he made during his first day in office Wednesday. Some restaurateurs flanked Scott outside City Hall to urge residents to support Baltimore restaurants by ordering carryout and buying gift cards to be spent after the threat of the coronavirus abates.

Tony Foreman, who owns Charleston, Petit Louis and other restaurants through his Foreman Wolf group, said he stands by Scott’s decision. He said the restaurant business has been crushed by the coronavirus and that his establishments are no exception. But he worries about hospitals in Baltimore filling up fast and about the health of his community.

Damye Hahn of Faidley's Seafood speaks out during a news conference Monday against Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott's order to shut down all indoor and outdoor dining, calling it rushed and arbitrary.
Damye Hahn of Faidley's Seafood speaks out during a news conference Monday against Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott's order to shut down all indoor and outdoor dining, calling it rushed and arbitrary. (Kenneth K. Lam)

“I certainly don’t want people out of work and I certainly don’t want to lose a ton of money. But I don’t want my neighbor down the street to have a heart attack and have nowhere to go,” Foreman said in a phone interview. “Faced with those options, I’d go with what the mayor chose.”

Foreman had to make some of the same tough decisions as the owners gathered in Fells Point. He’s had to slash his staff by about 40% and said the 60% who are still working have had reduced hours.

Gjerde said he had to lay off about 20 people since Scott’s order and worries about whether they’ll be able to get financial assistance before the holidays.

The voices of others gathered Monday rose when they discussed their employees.

Ashish Alfred, chef-owner of Duck Duck Goose in Fells Point, described applying for unemployment insurance as a “herculean” effort.

Damye Hahn of Faidley’s Seafood wondered why the city was putting her employees through this after they’ve worn masks, erected Plexiglas shields and sanitized. Hahn said Faidley’s hasn’t had a coronavirus case.

She was among some who said all restaurants shouldn’t be punished for those that haven’t followed the rules closely. She said there are safe ways to conduct indoor and outdoor dining.

“Responsible business owners deserve to operate,” Hahn said.

Charlie Gjerde, owner of five Baltimore restaurants, including Alexander's Tavern in Fells Point, speaks out Monday against Mayor Brandon Scott's shutdown order of all indoor and outdoor dining in the city, calling it rushed and arbitrary.
Charlie Gjerde, owner of five Baltimore restaurants, including Alexander's Tavern in Fells Point, speaks out Monday against Mayor Brandon Scott's shutdown order of all indoor and outdoor dining in the city, calling it rushed and arbitrary. (Kenneth K. Lam)

But in defending his decision, Scott pointed to those establishments that put out tents enclosed on four sides, which lack ventilation. Public health experts have said that such tents could be more dangerous than dining indoors.

“There are too many people that have not taken what we need to protect ourselves and to protect our neighbors seriously,” Foreman echoed.

Though takeout won’t make up for dining in person, there are ways to lessen the financial blow, Foreman said. He pointed to online ordering and retailing wine to-go.

Gjerde, meanwhile, has reinstated a delivery service. To keep more people employed, waiters and bussers will be delivery drivers, he said.

“The good news is that we’ve been through this before so we learned a lot the first time around.”

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