Baltimore became the first jurisdiction in the region to announce it would reinstate more strict coronavirus restrictions Friday, including tightening capacity restrictions, shutting down bars that don’t serve food, and requiring masks in all public spaces, indoors and out.
The limits come as the region enters the so-called second wave of the virus, with leaders warning they would take further action in a few weeks if cases continue to rise.
Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said the restrictions were meant to “save lives in Baltimore City" as the weather cools and people look to spend more time inside.
Health experts have warned that COVID-19 molecules spread more easily inside, and that bars in particular pose a high risk for transmission. With a rise in new COVID-19 cases, Young said, “A lot of cases we’re seeing are from indoor and family gatherings."
Maryland confirmed 1,541 new coronavirus cases on Friday, the third-highest daily total since the start of pandemic. Baltimore, in particular, has recorded an average of 103 new cases per day, an increase of over 53% over the last month. The number of COVID-19 patients requiring ICU beds has increased by 73% in city hospitals.
“This data is alarming and requires action,” said the city health commissioner, Dr. Letitia Dzirasa.
The following rules go into effect in Baltimore on Thursday:
- All indoor and outdoor facilities, including restaurants, theaters, malls, casinos, entertainment venues, event spaces and religious facilities, should not exceed 25% of their usual maximum capacity.
- Bars that are not licensed to sell food must shut down.
- Restaurants and other food service establishments must halt indoor dining by 10 p.m.
- Gatherings at homes are limited to 10 people.
Also, effective immediately, Baltimoreans must wear masks in all indoor and outdoor public places.
“If you are in a public space, inside or outside, you should be wearing a face cloth covering over your nose and your mouth, period," Dzirasa said.
The city’s announcement Friday afternoon stood in contrast to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who said Thursday that statewide metrics, though troubling, “do not yet warrant taking drastic immediate actions.”
But local governments have the autonomy to tighten restrictions in their area. For example, current state rules allow restaurants and other businesses to operate at 75% capacity, but Baltimore has capped them at 50% since September.
Montgomery County leaders have also proposed limiting restaurants and other venues to 25% capacity; the county council plans to vote on the measure next week. And in Anne Arundel County, all bars and restaurants must halt indoor service by 10 p.m.
Baltimore’s leaders are also advising residents to skip holiday get-togethers this year.
“Is Thanksgiving with all of your extended family worth the risk of putting an older loved one in the hospital?” Dzirasa said.
Local health officials will check in a month whether the interventions successfully reduced cases. If not, the city may clamp down further, she said. Officials saw a decline in cases after reintroducing restrictions over the summer. However, as winter approaches, Dzirasa said, “things could certainly get worse before they get better.”
For Baltimore haunts like the Mount Royal Tavern in Bolton Hill, which sells Natty Boh but nary a chicken wing, the latest restrictions will mean shutting down for the third time this year. After hearing the news from her customers, bartender Mallory Porter worried that a flood of regulars would come in for one last drink.
Still, she appreciated that this time, businesses were given more notice before the shutdown went into effect. “The last time they did it, we had just made a liquor order."
The latest restrictions were announced less than a week after Halloween revelers clogged sidewalks outside bars in neighborhoods like Federal Hill. In the aftermath, the city temporarily shuttered several spots, including Banditos and The Charles, citing a lack of social distancing.
The new limits on dining will make it more difficult for restaurants to stay in business, says Tony Foreman, whose Foreman Wolf restaurant group owns Charleston, Petit Louis and others in Baltimore.
Still, he supported the stricter rules, given both the increasing number of coronavirus cases and people’s failure to comply with mask mandates and social distancing requirements.
“Public health is the primary priority," he said. That doesn’t mean it’s particularly fun if you own a restaurant right now."
Dzirasa acknowledged that many Marylanders are experiencing “pandemic fatigue," after so many missed birthdays, holidays and family gatherings in 2020.
“However,” Dzirasa said, "Baltimore, none of us can afford to let our guard down.”