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‘We will shut you down’: Some in Little Italy want to offer outdoor seating. Baltimore Mayor Young says not yet.

Sergio Vitale envisions closing High Street in Baltimore’s Little Italy for “curbside-plus” dining in the age of coronavirus, in which customers could pick up food from restaurants, then enjoy it at tables spread six feet apart in a socially distanced, outdoor food court.

The chef and owner of Aldo’s Ristorante Italiano said he isn’t among those who downplay the risks of the coronavirus and doesn’t feel ready to re-open his dining room yet, even at 50% capacity. He just wants Baltimore to join cities in Florida, Connecticut and New York in finding outdoor alternatives for the struggling restaurant industry as Maryland inches toward reopening.

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“Our pitch is to do this as a sort of baby step in the direction of opening," Vitale said. “We think this is a safe step in the right direction.”

While restaurants “are vitally important to the community" and are allowed to offer pickup and delivery, public health orders do not allow “indoor or outdoor [restaurant] seating or gatherings of more than 10 people," Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said a news release Monday.

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“I have heard a few disturbing rumors that some restaurants, bars, and even swim clubs are planning to resume operations this week," Young said in the release. “I want to make perfectly clear that these operations are prohibited, under both the Governor’s Safer At Home Public Health Advisory and my local Stay at Home Order, and that we will be enforcing these Executive Orders."

The city is continuously reevaluating data and consulting with health experts about loosening restrictions as soon as possible, Young said. But in the meantime, city police, health, liquor and housing officials are enforcing compliance with the current restrictions, he said.

“If you illegally open your business," the mayor said, "we will shut you down.”

Vitale said he invited Young to Little Italy to discuss how such a setup might look, but has no intention of moving forward with any plan without the blessing of city officials. Vitale added he thought the mayor’s statement was issued in response to his invitation.

The mayor called Vitale a few days after the restaurant owner sent him a text message asking "how we might be able to close some streets to offer outdoor, social-distanced dining,” Vitale said.

On the call, Young threatened to reopen the street to vehicular traffic, shut down the businesses, fine the owners and pull their health department permits if the restaurants try to open an outdoor food court on their own, Vitale said.

“The conversation was short and unproductive, I can tell you,” he said. “He was defensive and argumentative. ... But I give him credit for calling me at all.”

Absent further guidance, Vitale said, he and other restaurant owners likely will work to devise potential health protocols to suggest as officials weigh which businesses can reopen, when and how.

“If we wait too long,” he warned, “there’ll be nothing else to open up.”

Lester Davis, a spokesman for the Democratic mayor, expressed a deep concern for relaxing restrictions in the city after the state on Tuesday announced a single-day high of 1,784 new coronavirus cases. He also noted that, despite Baltimore’s stay-at-home order, many people were seen gathering with friends and family at parks, beaches and other areas this weekend.

Mary Ann Alcaraz, 82, a lifelong resident of Little Italy, is escorted across S. High Street by her son, Ray Alcaraz. Street life is still evident in Little Italy, but is more subdued. The coronavirus crisis has had a deep impact on the restaurants that are the lifeblood of Little Italy. March 26, 2020
Mary Ann Alcaraz, 82, a lifelong resident of Little Italy, is escorted across S. High Street by her son, Ray Alcaraz. Street life is still evident in Little Italy, but is more subdued. The coronavirus crisis has had a deep impact on the restaurants that are the lifeblood of Little Italy. March 26, 2020 (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Allowing people to congregate, even outdoors, “runs too high of a risk of folks who may be asymptomatic but could be carriers unknowingly bringing their COVID-19 to unsuspecting families or friends," he said.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Davis said. “The numbers today showed how perilous this all is and how the gains we’ve made can be wiped out in the blink of an eye. Going into this holiday weekend we cannot afford to have a repeat of what we had this past weekend. ... This is really a matter of life and death. We need everyone’s help to try to drive home that message.”

Germano Fabiano, owner of Germano’s Piattini across the street from Aldo’s, remains concerned about the pandemic and skeptical that restaurants are ready to resume sit-down dining — even with tables spread out on High Street.

Fabiano said he would not participate if other Little Italy restaurants moved forward with such a plan.

“It’s a little too early," he said. "I know everybody is encouraging to open up to do business but, to me, it’s very risky. ... I don’t want to take any chances.”

Open-air dining on High Street sounds like “a wonderful idea” to Lisa Morekas, owner of Sabatino’s Italian Restaurant — "just as soon as the mayor says it’s OK for us to open up.”

Sabatino’s has suffered during the mandatory closure and wants to reopen as much as any restaurant, Morekas said, but she has no plans to buck the mayor’s or the governor’s orders.

“I’m stuck in the middle,” she said. "As much as we want to open, I’m going to do the right thing in the end and I believe the right thing is to follow the rules.

“I agree if someone can sit in a chair and get their hair done, they can sit at a table and eat a meal, but that’s not what’s been determined. We have to go by what they’re telling us. If it’s another week, it’s another week. If it’s another month, it’s another month.”

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