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Last call as Maryland bars, restaurants shut down to prevent coronavirus spread

Gov. Larry Hogan orders all restaurants and bars to be closed to dine-in customers in effort to fight COVID-19 pandemic.

By Monday afternoon, Leigh Philipkosky and her staff had placed all the chairs upside down atop the bar and tables at O.L.A.R. in Brewers Hill. They turned off the lights and locked the doors.

For how long, and to what effect on their incomes — and their neighborhood’s need to gather over an occasional pint or meal there — was another uncertainty in the new normal brought on by the coronavirus. On Monday, Gov. Larry Hogan ordered bars and restaurants to shut down except for takeout and delivery as part of Maryland’s escalating efforts to keep people home and slow the spread of the virus.

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“Nobody can afford to lose two weeks of business. We’re all worried, but we’re also being responsible and we’re looking out for the best for the community,” Philipkosky said as she closed up the bar and restaurant she’s owned for eight years.

“We’re a neighborhood spot and I want their well-being as much as my own.”

O.L.A.R. stands for Of Love and Regret, and there was plenty of both as bars and eateries throughout the state served up last call before the 5 p.m. closing mandated by the governor.

Philipkosky said she’d miss “the interactions with the guests.” Her bar manager Russ Ward said wryly he’d miss “the money.”

Indeed, the economic effect of the shutdown could be substantial: The Restaurant Association of Maryland said industry sales totaled $13.3 billion in 2018. Additionally, the association said, every dollar spent on a seated restaurant meal contributes $1.73 to the state’s economy.

While many restaurants said they will shift to wrapping up meals for takeout rather than in-house dining, the economic impact of carryout is about 20 cents lower, according to the association.

The shutdown will idle many of the servers and bartenders among the 259,000 people in Maryland who work in food service — roughly 9 percent of the state’s workforce.

United Way of Central Maryland is already seeking donations to address the economic recession the coronavirus outbreak is now almost sure to usher in.

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“As work schedules are cut or jobs are eliminated because of the virus, we know that people will need help covering basic expenses, like rent or mortgage, food, utility bills, and healthcare,” the organization said in a fundraising email for its COVID-19 Community Fund. The Maryland General Assembly also is considering legislation that would expand unemployment benefits for people who lose their jobs due to the pandemic.

Even as they faced a loss of hours in the coming weeks, bar and restaurant staffs were busy on Monday serving up drinks and food to crowds livelier than you might expect on a Monday. With so much else closed down, and so many people working from home, many took the opportunity to have one last meal or one last drink before returning to the isolation forced by the deadly virus.

“It’s my last day [for] we don’t know how long,” said Brad Beutel as he enjoyed some of the final hours of operation at Ryleigh’s Oyster in Federal Hill. “I had a craving for Guinness and chicken wings.”

Susan Schruefer, a manager, filled water glasses, delivered bills and otherwise kept an eye out for customers’ needs.

“I think it’s a good decision,” Schruefer said of the shutdown. “Hopefully it will encourage people to stay home and be safe.”

After years of working in restaurants, she was a bit unnerved by this unprecedented break. Schruefer said she hasn’t gone grocery shopping in two years. She’ll help out at the Ryleigh’s Hunt Valley location, which will have meals-to-go, but it will be odd not to be in the midst of a raucous crowd of St. Patrick’s Day revelers Tuesday.

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“This has been my life," she said. “This is scary.”

At Slainte in Fells Point, Samantha Hofherr said Tuesday normally is the biggest day of the year for the Irish pub. The director of operations for Slainte and its siblings, Kooper’s Tavern and Woody’s Cantina, Hofherr said carryout will remain available, but it will hardly make up for the losses of the indefinite closure.

“Nothing can compare to an Irish pub being open on St. Patrick’s Day,” Hofherr said.

“This is going to be much harder, take much longer and be much worse than almost anyone is currently understanding," said Governor Hogan.

Her bars and eateries were among a group of Fells Point businesses that had decided to close even before Monday’s order "to get ahead of the inevitable.

“We saw the trends, how things were going,” she said. “We decided to close ... to prevent any further spread of the virus as best we could, whatever effect we could have on it.

“We’ll take care of people as best we can, as long as we can, however we can."

Hofherr said the restaurant group’s Chowhound food truck will be serving on Thames Street, outside Kooper’s, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and the company will try to give staff hours working there or in other capacities. “We’re just figuring it out as we go,” she said.

One of her customers Monday, John Magee, sat at an outdoor table eating a lunch cooked by someone else.

“I’m the cook at home,” the retired firefighter said. “I enjoy cooking, but it’s hard figuring out what to make.”

He thinks the restaurant shutdown is "probably a little too much.

“My personal opinion is to let people decide whether they want to go out on their own,” Magee said. “People are adults. ... I’m not necessarily against it, but how long can we sustain that?"

Brad Beutel of Locust Point headed to Ryleigh's Oyster Bar in Federal Hill when he heard that Gov. Larry Hogan ordered all restaurants and bars to close Monday at 5 p.m. to help contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Brad Beutel of Locust Point headed to Ryleigh's Oyster Bar in Federal Hill when he heard that Gov. Larry Hogan ordered all restaurants and bars to close Monday at 5 p.m. to help contain the spread of the coronavirus.(Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

He and his wife moved to Fells Point from Austin, Texas, a year ago and have been enjoying local restaurants. They had reservations this coming weekend to celebrate their anniversary at The Prime Rib. Now it appears their last meal out was on Sunday, when they went to Petit Louis Bistro in Roland Park — packed, he said.

The bistro’s owner, Tony Foreman, had dire warnings for how the shutdown might affect eateries, and their employees.

“This is going to demolish us,” he said bluntly.

Foreman, whose restaurant group with Chef Cindy Wolf owns some of Baltimore’s most renowned dining establishments, including Charleston and Cinghiale in Harbor East, said margins are thin in the industry during the best of times, let alone during an unexpected crisis.

He’s already had to lay off some of the group’s 350 employees, with more likely to also feel the ax.

“No one is exactly offering a rent hiatus,” he said.

Still, he understands the need for caution. He himself is under doctors’ orders to stay home, given a lung injury and multiple open-heart surgeries.

For now, he is hoping for a big return whenever the restaurants reopen and he can rehire some of his laid-off staff.

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“I hope that the whole world wants to come out in July and have a grand old time,” he said.

Even as they finished one last day of welcoming customers into their businesses, owners and staff tried to find out what might be available in the way of assistance.

Julie Verratti said she tried to log on to the state’s unemployment insurance website Monday but was unable to connect. “This is like day one,” said Verratti, who ran for lieutenant governor in 2018 on a Democratic ticket with businessman Alec Ross. “That is not good, for that to start out like that.”

The owner of Denizens Brewing Co. was preparing to furlough what likely would be many of her front-of-house workers at brewpubs in Silver Spring and Riverdale Park.

She said she hopes federal and state officials realize more economic assistance will be needed to help small businesses and their workforces make it through what she fears could be another Great Depression. President Donald Trump’s administration has floated the idea of small business loans, but Verratti said she doesn’t think that will help — businesses need cash, and a break from debt payments, to stay afloat.

“This is not a game; this is an absolute crisis right now,” Verratti said.

Des Reilly and his partners at the Star Restaurant Group each plan to take a pay cut and are encouraging staffers at their restaurants in Washington and Columbia to use their remaining paid time off during the next few weeks.

Reilly hopes that transitioning to curbside pickup and delivery options at places like The Walrus in Howard County will allow him to keep at least some of his 230 employees working and earning.

“We just want to stay liquid and keep the lights on,” he said.

Still, he’s going to have to let go of a lot of them. Reilly remembers the financial crisis of 2008, when the New York City restaurant group he worked for downsized from six businesses to one. But even that doesn’t compare to the current crisis, he said.

One widely touted bit of assistance is for residents to buy gift cards to use whenever the restaurants reopen. The Tilted Row, a Bolton Hill brasserie, shared a receipt from a guest who purchased $1,000 worth of gift cards Monday. The gesture “took our breath away,” the restaurant wrote on Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/p/B9z1HFbpS2l/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

As Leigh Philipkosky closed up Of Love and Regret, she thought of what might have been.

“We had plans on how to have diners with appropriate spacing," she said. “People were still coming out. They were coming to support us.”

Now she can only wait for what happens next.

“We’re all holding our breath.”

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