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Baltimore restaurants cycle between open and closed as Canton becomes coronavirus hot spot

Workers from the company Disinfect-It head to Cowboy Row in Canton as several restaurants have temporarily closed because of the recent outbreak of restaurant employees in the area testing positive for COVID-19. El Bufalo Tequila Bar and Kitchen is one of the restaurants that has recently closed.
Workers from the company Disinfect-It head to Cowboy Row in Canton as several restaurants have temporarily closed because of the recent outbreak of restaurant employees in the area testing positive for COVID-19. El Bufalo Tequila Bar and Kitchen is one of the restaurants that has recently closed. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

The same day last month Gov. Larry Hogan announced that restaurants in Maryland soon would be able to open their dining rooms at half capacity, Charlie Gjerde, co-owner of Wicked Sisters, was shutting his Hampden eatery down.

Despite all the health precautions the restaurant had taken for the past three months — cleaning obsessively and checking staff temperatures at the start of each shift — an employee tested positive for COVID-19.

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Wicked Sisters has since reopened, but for other restaurants, the cycle of closing, reopening and closing again continues. Within the past two weeks, at least 10 eateries have temporarily closed in Canton, a neighborhood public health experts say is an emerging hot spot for the coronavirus as cases are rising in younger people.

A spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan said in an email that Maryland “health officials are working closely with Baltimore City health officials to support their investigation” of the situation in Canton.

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City health officials and a spokesman for Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young did not respond to a request for comment.

It comes less than three weeks after Young permitted restaurants to resume indoor dining at half capacity.

To Morgan Katz, assistant professor of infectious disease at Johns Hopkins University, the cases show it’s still not safe to hang out inside bars and restaurants, where social distancing can be difficult if not impossible.

“I don’t think we’ve really figured out how to do bars and indoor dining safely,” she said.

Weighing safety concerns, many Baltimore-area restaurants have opted not to open their dining rooms at all.

“I feel like the more we learn about the virus and how it spreads, the more clear it is to everybody that indoor dining is not safe,” said Eliza Steele of Dylan’s Oyster Cellar in Hampden, where guests can sit at a few tables outside or take food to go. The dining room and oyster bar remain closed.

In South Florida, officials this week are shutting down all on-site dining at restaurants in response to rising numbers of COVID-19 cases.

Katz said she thinks the process of having to close again after opening “is going to be more devastating to business owners than opening more slowly.”

At least four establishments around Canton’s O’Donnell Square closed — Looney’s Pub, Southern Provisions, El Bufalo Tequila Bar & Kitchen and Cowboy Row. Other closures in the neighborhood include The Pig & Rooster Smokehouse, The Chasseur and Lee’s Pint & Shell.

Citing those shutdowns, Nacho Mama’s announced Monday it would be halting business at its Canton location as well as sister restaurants Mama’s on the Half Shell and Pizza and Wing Factory.

“Although no one has come forward with a positive result as of now, we feel it imperative to take these proactive steps to ensure the safety of our staff and guests,” said a note posted outside Nacho Mama’s in Canton.

The restaurant’s Towson location also closed July 3 after an employee tested positive for the virus.

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And there could be more: restaurants are not required to shut down or make public when an employee tests positive. Katz applauded the restaurants in Canton for being transparent about the cases.

“We do know that Canton and the 21224 ZIP code has been one of our hardest hit ZIP codes,” Katz said. “So it’s also not surprising that that’s where we’re seeing some of this resurgence in cases.”

Katz said the outbreak in youthful Canton — the 21224 ZIP code, where the median age is around 33, currently has one of the highest number of cases in the state — reflects a larger trend. More and more, young people comprise a higher proportion of diagnoses.

“We’re definitely seeing a huge increase in prevalence of cases in the younger population compared to the older population,” Katz said.

She warned that while younger people are generally less at risk for complications from the coronavirus, some have had to go to the ICU for prolonged periods or required extensive rehab.

But that was far from Michael Gallagher’s mind as he opened his laptop on the bar at Looney’s Pub in Canton. It was Monday, the first day the eatery had been open after shutting down for more than a week when an employee tested positive for the coronavirus.

“Thankfully I’ve always been pretty healthy,” said Gallagher, noting he has never taken a sick day in seven years at his job at Under Armour.

Next to him at the bar was Bruce Czarski, 63, who sipped a Corona Light. It wasn’t an homage to the virus, he said. “It’s my beer,” he said. “It’s only 90 calories.” He cited his good health with his willingness to come to the bar.

“I’m willing to take the risk,” said Czarski, who lives in a Canton row home purchased by his Polish ancestors more than 100 years ago.

But being back was “a little nerve-wracking,” for manager Stephanie Harmsen. She lives with a relative who has an autoimmune disease and worries about exposing them to the virus. But she was grateful that the pub’s owners had been actively communicating with staff and proactive about safety.

Looney’s shut down June 26 in the middle of the evening dinner rush after a first employee tested positive. Since then, all staff were tested; two workers are still self-quarantining.

Asked whether she feared new positive cases in the neighborhood could prompt another wave of infections and lead Looney’s to have to close again, Harmsen said: “Hopefully that does not happen.”

For restaurant owners and workers, the prospect of having to shut down a third or even fourth time for coronavirus cases may be too devastating to imagine. Some area restaurants already have closed permanently, with owners unable to pay rent with reduced or no income. Others are likely to follow.

“Dominoes are going to keep falling,” Charleston co-owner Tony Foreman told The Sun earlier this year, commenting on the permanent closures. “If you own your building and you already do a huge amount of takeout, you’ll be able to grow your takeout … otherwise you’re screwed. Either large screwed or small screwed.”

But it’s a reality some are weighing already.

In April, Phil Han shut down Dooby’s, his Mount Vernon cafe, for two weeks after an employee tested positive for COVID-19. Two months later, when another worker tested positive at the same business, the restaurant remained open for carryout and delivery only.

Han said he made the decision not to close at Dooby’s after discussions with Baltimore health department officials. The employee had not had prolonged close contact with others, a key risk factor according to CDC guidelines.

“We can only do as best as we can with the limitations that we have and hope for the best,” Han said.

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Baltimore Sun visuals editor Lloyd Fox contributed to this article.

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