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Hunkering down: Local businesses suffer in coronavirus wake

Atwater's Catonsville, opened to pick-up orders only Monday, was mostly vacant after seeing Sunday sales cut in half, its general manager said.
Atwater's Catonsville, opened to pick-up orders only Monday, was mostly vacant after seeing Sunday sales cut in half, its general manager said.(Taylor DeVille / Baltimore Sun)

On a normal day, customers would flock to Atwater’s Catonsville for lunch, snagging an open table as soon as it became available and shuffling around each other in a snaking line from the register as they waited for their to-go orders.

At 1 p.m. March 16, the Frederick Road spot was nearly vacant. A sign posted on the door advised customers the family-owned cafe and restaurant would only be providing to-go orders and would be closing for the day at 3 p.m. “just to get the flow of information streamlined,” said Casey Atwater, the location’s general manager.

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After federal, state and local governments ramped up decrees two weeks ago to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus and Gov. Larry Hogan ordered a two-week public school closure, March 13“was the first day I think that was significantly just dead,” bringing in just half of the typical daily sales, said Atwater, whose father owns the five Baltimore-area restaurants.

That “was the turning point,” she said.

Public health officials recommend social distancing — staying in one’s home and out of the public sphere — as a way to curb the pandemic by limiting exposure, particularly for vulnerable populations like the elderly and those with existing health conditions.

To that end, Glen Boller, who has co-owned Catonsville Hair with his wife since 1988, voluntarily decided to close his salon on Frederick Road for the next 15 days as of March 17.

Boller and his wife “struggled with making this decision,” he said March 16, but they’re “trying to stick with the guidelines."

With much of the salon’s clientele being older, “we have a lot of people that have compromised immune systems that come in here,” Boller said.

Most business owners, particularly restaurateurs in southwestern Baltimore County, are feeling the same strain with little time to prep after Hogan on March 16 ordered the shutdown of all movie theaters, gyms and dine-in restaurants as of 5 p.m.

Sparse customers ate their lunch the afternoon of March 16 in Sorrento of Arbutus. Fire Wok, a Chinese takeout restaurant on East Drive, had seen a 50% decrease in call-in, pickup and delivery orders, owner May Chen said. At Objects Found in Arbutus, the antique and consignment shop had seen a drop in business of about 75% before picking back up over the weekend of March 14-15, according to owner Reggie Sajauskas.

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“We don’t even know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” said Ana Tolentino, a bartender at Fish Head Cantina in Halethorpe, where a dozen customers sat around the bar March 16. “Who’s coming in, or do we need anyone coming in at all? We’re just trying to take it a day at a time, everyone in [the restaurant] industry.”

“We’re gonna get affected by it a lot. For most of us this is a main source of income,” Tolentino said.

“It’s kind of out of everyone’s control,” said Teal Cary, executive director of the Greater Catonsville Chamber of Commerce. “Until the federal government comes out with more [guidelines], I think we’re all just sitting back and watching.”

The chamber has gotten just a few calls from businesses regarding COVID-19, but has assumed the role of facilitating connections with Baltimore County and state resources as they continue to be rolled out, including a streamlined process for businesses to temporarily deliver alcohol to county residents announced March 17.

Restaurants generate over $62 million in sales tax to Maryland each month, said Restaurant Association of Maryland president Marshall Weston Jr.

“With restaurant closures, the mandated suspension of dine-in seating and significant overall decreases in business there will be financial strains on restaurants, employees and the state,” Weston wrote in an emailed statement.

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The association is “communicating with several state agencies" to encourage the development of relief plans “to the many employees and restaurant owners that will be affected by the loss of business,” Weston wrote.

Without dine-in options, restaurants like State Fare and Atwater’s are looking for ways to keep their staff members working.

Atwater said the cafe is “definitely cutting hours” but is trying to help employees fill out applications for unemployment benefits after Maryland legislaturepassed a bill to extend temporary benefits to employees who will lose their jobs due to the pandemic.

At State Fare, which just began its delivery service, the restaurant’s 16 servers will start working regular shifts and delivering orders in their own cars, co-owner Evan Brown said. Curbside pick-up will still be available.

The Frederick Road restaurant is also stocking toiletries, water, milk and other items running out quickly at area grocery stores, which can be ordered over the phone, Brown said.

An updated list of available items will be posted daily to State Fare’s Facebook page, Brown said.

As business wanes in the food service industry, the area’s small grocery stores are facing the opposite problem: keeping up with demand.

At Amigos Market on Frederick Road, co-owner Esmeralda Guevara said March 17 her husband has had to drive to wholesale restaurant depots to restock items like toilet paper, milk, eggs and water as many as three times in one day.

“Normally it’s like twice a week,” said Guevara, who now brings her three children to work with her since schools and her 3-year-old son’s day care have closed. “It’s been crazy.”

Guevara said she’s been cleaning the counters with bleach every two hours, but the increased business has been good for the family-owned market, which opened nine months ago and was off to a slow start.

“It’s a bad situation, but for us it has been good in a way,” she said. “More people have come and and they have stated they didn’t know we were here. It’s nice to have more customers.”

In Safeway on Baltimore National Pike, Dymone Lewis struggled to find water, bread and eggs to fulfill customer orders through the Shipt app that allows buyers to have drivers shop for items and bring them to their homes.

On Tuesday, the app had 200 pending orders from Baltimore to Annapolis, a definite increase, Lewis said.


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