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Baltimore bars feel pain of early last call

Baltimore bars feel pain of early last call
The exterior of Max's Taphouse in Fells Point in March. Owner Ron Furman said sales were down 95 percent this week due to the curfew. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

On Thursday afternoon, as a fraction of the usual Max's Taphouse staff struggled to make money, organizers of scheduled private parties at the popular Fells Point beer bar were continuing to cancel their weekend events, owner Ron Furman said.

Furman, who claimed to be "running on three hours of sleep in four days," said his business was losing tens of thousands of dollars this week because of the seven-day, 10 p.m. curfew Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake implemented on Tuesday in response to unrest related to the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.

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The week's sales were down 95 percent of what they would be during a week of usual operating hours, he estimated.

"It's devastating for us," Furman said. "We're talking about an impact that's going to be felt throughout the entire year."

Restaurants and bars are among the non-essential businesses whose operations must be suspended between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. according to the city-wide curfew. Part of the ordinance reads, "visitors and patrons should plan enough travel time before the curfew begins."

"It was certainly an unusual feeling to turn the lights on with a full house," said Rob Frisch, the co-owner of Mt. Washington Tavern. "It was kind of surreal. We turned the lights up and started pushing people out at about 20 of 10 [p.m.] Most of them were going to the county."

Frisch said the impact of the curfew would hurt is business, as would the loss of six Oriole home games. The baseball club postponed its home games on Monday and Tuesday and relocated its weekend series against the Tampa Bay Rays to that team's stadium in St. Petersburg, Fla. Wednesday's game was played at Camden Yards, but it was closed to the public.

The curfew was not the only concern for restaurant owners.

"Nobody wants to come downtown," said Tom Creegan, a co-owner of the Brewer's Art in Mid-Town Belvedere, on Thursday afternoon, following the second night of the curfew period.

"We've definitely lost the majority the reservations and some booked events," Creegan said.

He added that the cancellation of neighborhood cultural events, such as a Baltimore Speakers Series lecture with Dan Rather on Tuesday at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, was hurting his business, too.

In response, the Brewer's Art has adjusted its hours. The establishment, which normally opens at 4 p.m., is opening at 2 p.m. during the week and on 1 p.m. on the weekend, to recoup some of the lost business, and to give both tipped and hourly employees a chance to make up for lost income.

Jason Zink, owner of Smaltimore in Canton, said sales on Tuesday, the first night of the curfew, were better than usual because members of the neighborhood made it a point to visit. Patrons left by 9:45 p.m., Zink said. He said he is against the curfew because "it hurts the economy from the top down."

Half of his normal weekly sales will be lost, Zink estimated, and tipped-employees such as bartenders will also lose 50 percent of their usual tips. Employees making only hourly wages will be affected the most, he said, because of the hours lost.

"I could feel [a little] frustration in the kitchen staff yesterday," Zink said. "They were asking me and I had no answers for them. We just hope for the best."

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Hampden, another city neighborhood with a number of bars and restaurants, is also feeling the pain.

"[The curfew] is profound on a number of levels," said Benn Ray, the president of the Hampden Village Merchants Association. "Coming through [Hampden] at 9 p.m., it's like a ghost town."

Ray sent a letter to the mayor's office on Thursday asking her to consider amending the curfew. A portion of the letter said, "We very much appreciate the concern for public safety. However, the repercussions it's having on the small business community, and our employees, is devastating."

On Wednesday, Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said during a phone interview that the mayor is open to ending the seven-day curfew early if calm and order have been restored. The curfew's economic impact on local businesses, he said, is "a major concern for the mayor."

"What we've always tried to say is this is a very fluid situation. We will use these tools as long as they're needed," Harris said. "But the second it comes that we feel they're not needed anymore, we won't keep the curfew in place and we won't keep the National Guard here."

However, on Thursday night, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said that the curfew would remain in place through the weekend.

Even if the curfew were amended or lifted, Creegan said, restaurants wouldn't have their problems solved. "I think it would help with people in town going out," he said. "But it won't help with people coming to downtown."

Creegan said that he thinks a quick recovery is possible. "People in Baltimore tend to rally," he said. "People are pretty aware that this is hurting small businesses."

Ray agreed that the curfew was only part of the problem facing restaurants in Hampden and the city at large, both for the short- and long-term.

"The sooner we get rid of the curfew," Ray said, "the sooner we can address the other problems."

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