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Last call (again) at Mt. Royal Tavern as Baltimore shuts down bars that don’t sell food amid coronavirus surge

The lights blinked on in the Mt. Royal Tavern, illuminating a museum’s worth of tchotchkes. Patrons grumbled as bartender Ben Franklin announced last call.

“It’s 4:24, Ben, c’mon!” said a man perched on the bar.

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“He’s not getting any of us out 'til 5,” Glenn Carback said.

And at 5 p.m. Thursday, the beloved “dirt church” would shut down for the third time this year, to comply with a city order that taverns that don’t sell food must close amid another spike in coronavirus cases. The storied dive bar sells individual packages of chips and lemons with cocktails — not real food. Still, Franklin said he was annoyed by the city’s decision to single out bars when restaurants are allowed to stay open at 25% capacity indoors.

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The past eight months have been stressful for the bar’s staff, never knowing when they would be out of — or back on — the job.

“It’s a horrible thing to have your fate hanging in the balance,” said Franklin, beneath his neck gaiter. He joked that he’s the “mask Nazi,” ordering anyone not seated to cover their faces.

Thursday afternoon, regulars poured in to say goodbye to friends and have a final round at the place they consider a second home. So many came that Franklin ended up having to turn people away for the first time since the pandemic began.

“A lot of them were treating me very nicely,” he said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, many donated to a GoFundMe to support the bar’s laid-off staff. It amounted to a few hundred dollars each.

Though city rules allow bars like Mt. Royal Tavern to stay open past Thursday as packaged good operations, bartender Robert Warren Gelhaus said the demand is too low for that to make sense.

“Our carryout business is super light,” he said.

The pub, which Esquire Magazine called one of America’s 18 Best Bars in 2016, opened just after Prohibition, said Glenn Carback, 61, whose brother Ron bought the place in the 1980s.

In the years since it’s accumulated an insane amount of paraphernalia — every item with a story, which Carback is happy to tell. There are brass plaques on the bar; taxidermied animals and signs for extinct beer companies. Look up and see the ceiling that was decorated in the ’90s by a Maryland Institute College of Art student to look like the Sistine Chapel. There’s an old pay phone that hasn’t worked in a decade.

“It’s a great place to set your drink down and then look for it later,” he said.

Fans say it’s not just the knickknacks and quirky decor that make Mt. Royal Tavern special. It’s the diverse mix of people, from art students to law students, blue-collar workers to white, gay and straight, Black and white, young and old. “It gets an interesting crowd— and it better be back,” Carback said.

Many have been coming for decades. Michael Mack first dropped by in 1978, when he was a young court employee working downtown. Today he’s retired and visits daily to hang out with friends. They watch “The Price is Right” during the week and Ravens games on Sundays.

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“There’s people here that I talk to more than my family,” said Mack as he nursed a bourbon and ginger at a table by the jukebox, wearing a baseball cap decorated with buttons to honor a bartender who died in 2012.

“The wall is made out of Baltimore brick,” said Mack, knocking on it with his fist. “There ain’t another place like it in the world.”

Nearby, Samantha Bates, 29, sat with friends including her ex-fiance, Mario Calabrese, a 32-year-old deejay. Mt. Royal is their usual spot, the nexus between their two neighborhoods, her Mt. Vernon and his Bolton Hill. Bates wanted to come out to say goodbye to her friends.

“It’s like a little family here — we won’t see each other again until who knows when,” she said.

Suddenly, it was 5 p.m.

“All right, guys,” Gelhaus shouted to the stragglers, his voice as booming as a stadium announcer: “The government demands you leave the premises!”

Soon to be out of work, the burly bartender was thinking about how to occupy the next weeks. Gelhaus had started stitching his own cotton face masks.

“I need to claim unemployment and practice my sewing.”

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