Usually during the summer, business at Nacho Mama’s in Towson would be booming.
Patrons, young and old alike, would be packed into the restaurant’s bar area, chatting over Hubcap margaritas and Tex-Mex fare at close-quartered high tops.
In a summer defined by a global outbreak, things are different — much different.
“People still aren’t comfortable coming in,” said restaurant owner Jackie McCusker. “But it makes sense. I can’t say that I wish we were jammed pack right now.”
And while McCusker and Nacho Mama struggle with the industry’s new challenges, the popular restaurant announced late last week that it was temporarily closing again after a second employee tested positive for coronavirus.
If March brought panic to Baltimore County’s restaurant industry, July is being met with a steely resolve from restaurateurs who are determined to adapt to “the new normal” of dining in a world still besieged by the coronavirus pandemic: temperature checks, face masks, disinfectant fog.
“We have a good attitude; we’ve been around almost three decades,” McCusker said. “We’ve seen a lot, but we’ve never seen anything like this.”
Still, she added, “It’s hard to knock us down, ‘cause we’re fighters.”
Despite following sanitation guidelines, Nacho Mama’s is one of several in the region that have closed and reopened after employees tested positive for coronavirus at its Towson location in July.
Since the first employee contracted the virus early July, Nacho Mama’s has implemented even more stringent safety measures: All employees have been tested for the virus, a practice McCusker wants to make part of their routine. Employees are now screened for their temperature before coming to work. And McCusker hired a cleaning company to fog the restaurant with disinfectant, which she aims to have done regularly.
On July 18, Nacho Mama’s announced it was closing again after a second employee, whose last day of work was July 15, tested positive for coronavirus. The restaurant has not announced when it will reopen.
“We just got back in the saddle on Wednesday. The last thing we thought is it could happen during the weekend,” McCusker said.
Since Baltimore County and Maryland entered the second phase of Gov. Larry Hogan’s Roadmap to Recovery plan in mid-June, bars and restaurants have been allowed to reopen for indoor and outdoor dining, with restrictions, after three months of state-mandated closure.
Restaurants and bars may not exceed 50% capacity. Per county and state edicts, no more than six patrons may be seated at one table, and those tables must be kept at a safe distance from one another. Employees are to wear masks at all times, and customers inside must be masked while not eating.
While Melony Wagner says she’s happy to be reopened the Charles Village Pub & Patio in Towson, entering the second recovery phase comes with different stressors.
For one, using plastic silverware, which health officials recommend restaurants employ in lieu of metal silverware, is an added expense, and supplies from some wholesalers have at times run dry. And with surrounding restaurants reopened, competition in an area saturated with dining options and scarcer crowds has become tougher.
Readying the Towson restaurant to reopen, including creating a fourth outdoor dining section, cost around $60,000, said Wagner, owner of the Pennsylvania Avenue establishment.
“It’s hard to say how things are gonna shake out,” she said. Sales from takeout and delivery orders are higher than sales from customers dining in. The longer the pandemic goes on, the more likely it is that “we’ll have to call it quits,” she said.
Since mid-March, 56 Baltimore County restaurants have permanently closed, said county spokesman Sean Naron, although it’s uncertain whether all the establishments were forced to shutter due to lost revenue resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.
The surviving restaurants are in a precarious position; after an abrupt loss of revenue, how can they bounce back while also acting as public health stewards?
“There’s so much policing,” McCusker said. “This is a health issue, and this is a virus that kills.”
Restaurant owners say customers have largely been respectful of following guidelines, wearing masks indoors and maintaining social distancing. They say the 50% capacity cap has not been an issue yet, with most customers opting to dine outdoors. But Wagner has lost business turning away large groups of would-be customers in order to adhere to mandated crowd limits.
Eating outside at Towson Hot Bagels on Friday afternoon, Bel Air resident Henry Mackay, who works in a restaurant on Falls Road, said he’s comfortable going out to restaurants because he’s seen firsthand how his establishment is taking cleanliness seriously.
Sitting across from him, Patrick Filar agreed. While he hadn’t patronized many restaurants since mid-June, he said that was less out of a safety concern and moreso because restaurants where he lives in Bel Air were only just starting to reopen.
Drinking inside a bar is considered by health officials to be a high-risk activity when it comes to disease spread, given the proximity to other drinkers, cleanliness concerns regarding bars and the lower inhibition that comes with consuming alcohol that may cause one to shirk safety practices.
Indoor dining is also a riskier activity than outdoor dining, considering that infected air particles in an enclosed space will disperse less quickly, health officials say.
There are “more and more people coming in” to Red Pepper Sichuan Bistro on Allegheny Avenue, said manager Wang Ye. The first day they reopened, Ye said there were at most three tables served all day. Now, he said, he’s seen as many as 10 tables, mostly in pairs or groups of three.
“It’s one thing to go into a shop and walk around for a few minutes and maybe walk within 6 feet of someone, but if you’re sitting there for 45 minutes, an hour, 90 minutes, I think it’s a higher risk than I am personally willing to accept,” Crystal Watson, a senior scholar with Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security, told The Baltimore Sun.
At Towson Hot Bagels, where dining in is still prohibited, the owners have set up contactless kiosks so customers may order and pay inside the bagel shop without interacting with an employee, and take their order to go, or eat it outside. The owners also have introduced QR codes that customers can scan with their phones to view the menu without having to physically touch it.
With states like California, Texas and Florida shutting down due a spike in confirmed cases after briefly reopening nonessential businesses, Towson Hot Bagels co-owner Tony Scotto said, “We feel it’s more safe for our customers and our employees to not be around a lot of people inside.”
The food industry in some ways is better positioned than other sectors to withstand the economic volatility brought on by the pandemic, said JP Krahel, chair of the accounting department at Loyola University.
That’s because restaurants largely have more variable expenses, like food supply, staffing and utility costs, than fixed expenses. Restaurateurs can respond to less demand by cutting costs.
“A business that has more variable costs, like a restaurant does, is gonna be at least a little better able to roll with the punches,” Krahel said.
That flexibility comes with a downside: “Rolling with the punches means laying people off,” he said.
Operating under the current restrictions “may be enough for them to tread water,” but whether or not those operations are sustainable long term really depends on consumer confidence, Krahel said.
“We’re gonna need people in mass quantities to feel comfortable in crowds again” for restaurants to make a full economic recovery, Krahel said.
Absent of a vaccine or herd immunity — when 70% of a population becomes immune to a pathogen — that consumer confidence is likely to continue to be shaky, Krahel said.
Wagner said there is a silver lining though: a stronger sense of community.
“People have gotten on board with supporting small business and realizing that it really is essential for the economy to survive,” Wagner said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Christina Tkacik contributed to this article