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Are restaurant shutdowns effective at slowing the spread of the coronavirus? Experts debate before Baltimore judge.

Is Baltimore’s restaurant shutdown an effective means of controlling the spread of the coronavirus? Or is it the death knell for the city’s eateries, one that will drive diners to Baltimore County for good?

Lawyers for the city and a Maryland trade group debated that question on the first day of a hearing that was ostensibly about Baltimore’s ban on in-person dining but touched on everything from how the coronavirus is spread to hospital capacities to unemployment rates.

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Proceedings were held via Zoom, as courts remain closed for the pandemic. They will continue via teleconference Thursday at 1 p.m.

The hearing comes three weeks after a decision by Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill last month to allow the city’s ban on in-person dining to stand.

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In doing so, Fletcher-Hill denied a request from the Restaurant Association of Maryland to issue a temporary restraining order on the ban. The trade group also made requests in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties; judges in both jurisdictions denied those requests.

Witnesses called by the Restaurant Association of Maryland argued that the city’s dining ban and lockdown measures like it were causing irreparable economic and psychological harm. They added that the restaurant shutdown, which went into effect in December, had not reduced the number of COVID-19 cases in Baltimore.

“I don’t see any evidence that this has been an effective policy,” said Jayanta Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine and economist with Stanford University, who pointed to the rise in coronavirus cases in Baltimore in recent weeks. He argued that lockdowns, while causing significant psychological and economic damage, are an ineffective means of stopping transmission, in part because people will continue to gather in private homes. “The kinds of gatherings that happen in restaurants, you don’t eliminate them … you just displace where they happen.” More effective measures, he said, would include symptom checks and widespread vaccinations.

Experts testifying on the city’s behalf agreed that coronavirus cases are at record-high numbers. Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and a top adviser to Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, warned that the United States is at the “most dangerous” time of the pandemic “by far.” The situation could worsen with the arrival of a new, more contagious variant of the coronavirus. “Even without the new variant, the United States is in a very bad place,” he said.

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Unlike Bhattacharya, Inglesby spoke in favor of Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott’s decision to shut down restaurants, which he called an “important and correct step” to lower the number of deaths from the coronavirus.

The reason, he said, is that in-person dining remains a high-risk behavior for the transmission of the coronavirus, one frequently associated with COVID-19 outbreaks around the world. Though outdoor dining remains a safer option than eating inside, he expressed concern that measures taken to warm al-fresco diners in these colder months will limit ventilation.

To illustrate the hardships faced by city restaurants, Michelle Mtimet, the lawyer for the Restaurant Association of Maryland, also called to the Zoom stand Ashish Alfred, chef and owner of Duck Duck Goose in Fells Point and Montgomery County. 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.

Like many business owners, Alfred said he’s received a limited amount of financial support from local and federal sources. A $40,000 PPP loan covered just around five weeks of operating expenses. The city provided a $5,000 grant. “I don’t believe I’m making a sacrifice [to help the greater good],” he said. “I believe that the city is sacrificing me.”

Alfred also described some of the measures his staff have taken to maintain safety at his restaurants, including issuing contact tracing forms to guests and sanitizing tables between use.

But Inglesby suggested that even the most careful restaurateur may be limited in their ability to prevent the spread of the virus. For example, while individual businesses may take precautions such as checking guest temperatures at the door, those aren’t an effective means of detecting the virus, since not all patients will develop fever and other carriers of the disease may be pre-symptomatic.

Under questioning from Mtimet Inglesby warned: “I don’t have any hope that we will completely contain COVID anytime soon” — only that the death toll could be reduced.

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.

Alfred 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.

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