In downtown Westminster on a beautiful spring Saturday afternoon, there appeared to be no more people on the sidewalks than Friday, before state restrictions put in place in response to the coronavirus pandemic were eased.
Motorists had their choice of parking spaces on Main Street. Just one business had a line of people queuing on the sidewalk: American Ice Co. Cafe, where masked customers awaited curbside delivery.
There was one key difference, though: For the first time in months, nearly every store had an “open” sign in the window.
Maryland started its first phase of economic reopening in earnest Saturday, after a statewide “safer at home” advisory replaced Gov. Larry Hogan’s March 30 stay-at-home executive order as of Friday evening. Hogan also lifted some business restrictions in place since mid-March, allowing retailers, barber shops and salons to open at limited capacity.
Those restrictions, as well as others that remain in place, were implemented in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The governor cited declining COVID-19 hospitalizations to justify the relaxed restrictions, though close to 1,000 new cases continue to be confirmed daily, and about 50 Marylanders are dying every day, on average.
“For most counties in Maryland, it’s the first full day of Stage One of recovery— and a gorgeous day to practice social distancing,” Hogan tweeted Saturday.
In Carroll and Harford counties, two of the jurisdictions where the state’s “stage one” restrictions haven’t been extended, a mix of apprehension and cabin fever drove moderate foot traffic at various many businesses on Saturday. But there were also signs that some in the region feel more ready to get back to normal than others.
At Daughters Cafe in Hampstead, owner Michelle Long was so eager to get back to work, she opened her dining room Saturday morning at half capacity, even though restaurant service remains restricted to carryout and delivery across the state.
She said adapting her business to sell takeout cost her thousands of dollars, and she was desperate to prove customers could visit while remaining at a safe distance from one another.
“I’m a little guy. I don’t have a bunch of money behind me,” she said. “What’s going to happen when the utility company says, ‘Hey, you owe thousands of dollars’? Where am I going to come up with that if I don’t do something?”
But her experiment only lasted about two hours, until she said she got a call from Hampstead police advising her she was in violation of Hogan’s executive orders. She got back to her carryout business instead.
In Baltimore, where Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young has extended a stay-at-home order and nonessential businesses remain closed, police said they received some 60 calls about “illegal gatherings" Friday night and Saturday, “more than we’ve received in the past,” Det. Donny Moses said.
Police suspect that was largely because Hogan relaxed the statewide restrictions, even though they remain in place in the city, Moses said.
In one video shared on social media, lines could be seen stretching down the street Friday night at Hip Hop Fish and Chicken on Reisterstown Road, as groups of dirt bikers passed by. Moses said police responded to calls of disorderly conduct there, but did not issue any citations.
Most business activity also remains restricted in Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties, where leaders said the coronavirus remains too prevalent to safely start returning to normal.
But in Carroll and Harford, residents and small business owners were eager to take advantage of the relaxed restrictions.
At Pomeroy’s Jewelers in Westminster, Bentley, a tan and white American bulldog, enthusiastically greeted the first customers to the store he’s seen in two months.
Customers who declined to wear face masks were prohibited from entering, though.
“We are lucky to be open,” said Toni Pomeroy, the store’s owner. “We’re trying to keep everyone safe, so we’re refusing to let customers come in unless they wear a face mask. Some people don’t believe in it, and we don’t judge. But we have to follow the law.”
Though some customers might have less disposable income than they had before the pandemic, they still are purchasing jewelry for special occasions: birthdays, graduations, Mother’s Day, and of course, for weddings.
Pomeroy’s kept going throughout the pandemic by offering online shopping and curbside deliveries.
Down the block, a steady stream of visitors wandered into the Cultivated gift shop to greet owner Tiombe Paige like the old friend she is. They got caught up while browsing for bangles and books. But Paige had removed most of the comfy chairs and sofas that in pre-pandemic days had encouraged customers to linger.
”We spent a lot of time thinking,” Paige said, “about how we could encourage the flow of customers to keep people safe while preserving the same friendly feel that we’ve always had.”
And at Flourish Beauty Studio, owners Jennifer Shinderman and Heather Smith clipped the hair of a husband-and-wife couple who booked the first appointment they could get.
Shinderman said, ”To say that we’re excited to be open is an understatement.
”For Heather and me, this isn’t just a hair salon. It’s a mission. So much of people’s identities is tied up in the way their hair looks. To be prevented from exercising what you’re gifted at doing has been challenging.”
Some places lend themselves more easily to social distancing than others. On Saturday afternoon, with temperatures near 80 degrees and under sunny skies, nearly every parking space in the small lots lining Hashawha Environmental Center were full.
But the people themselves were spread so far apart that the nature preserve seemed almost empty. On the lake, a man showed two small boys how to cast their fishing poles into the water. Elsewhere, a trio of young girls with hiking sticks trudged down a trail.
An exuberant young boy ran down the path, veering within a few feet of a visitor. His mother, following close behind, gasped in horror and shouted for him to wait.
Laughing apologetically, she told the stranger: “There are so many new rules we all have to learn.”