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Baltimore judge upholds city’s dining ban, calling it a ‘matter of life and death’; Scott praises ruling

A Baltimore circuit judge has denied the request of a Maryland trade group to allow on-premises dining in the city.

In his remarks Thursday afternoon, Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill said Baltimore restaurants had in fact faced “irreparable harm” as a result of the dining bans. But he called the countervailing interests a “matter of life and death.” He denied the plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction.

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Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott praised the ruling, which he said in an emailed statement “was fundamentally about the health and safety of Baltimoreans.”

“While we are all anxious to get back to a sense of normalcy, we must continue to take precautions until the data determines it is safe to reopen,” he said. “The actions we take today help protect the ones we love and avoid another shutdown like this in the future.”

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The decision marks another legal blow for the Restaurant Association of Maryland’s quest to overturn dining bans across the state. The group announced last month that it had requested temporary restraining orders that would allow on-premises dining in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties; judges in both jurisdictions denied those requests.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has limited restaurants across the state to 50% capacity indoors, while allowing individual jurisdictions to impose tighter controls. Restaurants in neighboring Baltimore County are permitted to serve at half capacity, a fact that the Restaurant Association of Maryland repeated throughout the hearing.

“If I want to go to a restaurant I just drive up 83 and hit Baltimore County,” said attorney Michelle Mtimet, of Baltimore firm Zauner & Mtimet. She cautioned that sustained closures could lead to “empty streets” and an increase in crime in Baltimore.

Those remarks came at the end of nearly two days of hearings in which experts debated the effectiveness and need for strict lockdown measures during what one said is the “most dangerous” time in the pandemic.

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On Wednesday, Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and a top adviser to Hogan, called the city’s ban on in-person dining an “important and correct step” to lower the number of deaths from the coronavirus.

And Thursday, Letitia Dzirasa, Baltimore’s health commissioner, said that she believed that the ban on indoor and outdoor dining had prevented further deaths in the weeks since it went into effect.

In an emailed statement, Marshall Weston, the group’s president and CEO, warned that diners will continue to eat out in surrounding counties where restrictions remain more lax. “I suspect that many restaurant owners are now considering the same.”

Weston said that he was “disappointed” not only in Fletcher-Hill’s decision, but also in “what appears to be an impossible standard to meet in order for restaurants to reopen in Baltimore City.”

Earlier in the hearing, Ashish Alfred, chef and owner of Duck Duck Goose in Fells Point and Montgomery County, expressed concern that the difference will have lasting repercussions for his business as diners become more accustomed to heading to Baltimore County for meals. “It’s already hard to get people to come to the city,” he said.

He detailed some of his business’ recent financial struggles, saying that with carryout-only his business in Baltimore now is operating at a loss. He’s staying open only to keep staff employed. “I don’t believe I’m making a sacrifice [to help the greater good],” he said. “I believe that the city is sacrificing me.”

Fletcher-Hill acknowledged that the two sides in the case had articulated two distinct approaches to public health, one that focuses on stopping the spread of the virus, and another that considers economic and other factors as well.

Fletcher-Hill said that as a judge, it wasn’t his place to decide which was the correct approach to public policy. “Although I am elected, I wasn’t elected to that position. The mayor was,” he said.

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