This New Year’s Eve, Tecla Tesnau envisions patrons with collars popped dancing to Prince at Ottobar, the bar and music venue she owns in Remington, during the venue’s planned “80s prom.”
Days away, she’s still not sure that will become a reality. With omicron spreading fast across the region, do her customers “really want to come out and party?” Tesnau wondered. “It’s a giant, looming, neon question mark.”
Amid a troubling spike in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, Baltimore-area business owners and residents are rethinking plans to ring in the new year. On the heels of a fall downturn in cases that some hoped would bring a return to normalcy, many are resigning themselves, Sisyphus-style, to a 2022 filled with coronavirus uncertainty, even with vaccinations.
While Ottobar plans to stay open, some restaurants are closing or calling off New Year’s Eve parties as staff report new cases like never before.
Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal called off the company’s sold-out New Year’s Eve party, planned for its newly-opened Columbia location. With up to a third of staff out either with positive results or quarantining due to COVID exposures, Shallal worried about having enough workers and keeping people safe during the event.
He plans to reschedule the “peace party” with a lineup of speakers including Angela Davis — but he won’t move it to Zoom. “I really feel people are Zoomed-out a little bit,” he said.
Meanwhile, Maryland hospitals are straining under the pressure of the recent surge in cases, postponing some surgeries and warning of long wait times in emergency departments. The state’s positivity rate climbed near 20% Wednesday, among the highest at any point during the pandemic, and a record 2,046 patients are hospitalized.
Melissa Marx, an epidemiologist with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, cautioned that, based on models of the omicron variant’s spread in South Africa, “We are not near the top of this peak yet.”
Marx estimates at least 60% of the population will eventually contract the super-contagious omicron variant, though “a lot of us will be asymptomatic.” Most at-risk for serious illness will be immunocompromised and unvaccinated groups.
Still, this New Year’s Eve, Marx advises even vaccinated people to avoid crowded indoor gatherings. Though most people recover from the disease caused by the coronavirus in a few days, for a few, symptoms can last for months or even years. “Some people get long COVID even if they’re vaccinated,” she said.
The Christmas holiday provided ample time for the virus to travel. After visiting family members tested positive for the coronavirus, Bel Air resident Jason Evans said he would likely spend New Year’s Eve quarantining at home. No one in his household has shown symptoms, but Evans, an engineer at Aberdeen Proving Ground, is anxious about the possibility of exposing others. “That would weigh on our conscience,” he said.
With children 5 and under still ineligible to get jabbed, Timonium resident Kim Cafarchio said she scrapped plans with two other families to rent an Airbnb in Pennsylvania for a New Year’s Eve getaway. A Baltimore County teacher and mother of a 4-year-old and 8-month-old, Cafarchio said that with cases rising, “It’s not really safe for us to take them anywhere.” She also worries about bringing germs back to her children’s day care centers. Still, she said: “As an adult, it stinks.”
Renewed concern over the virus led Canton resident Curt Perzinski and his wife to cancel a holiday party earlier in December, following news that two invitees had tested positive. Since then, he said, cases have become so widespread that: “It feels like everybody’s going to get it this wave.”
For New Year’s Eve, the couple will dine outdoors at Sally O’s in Highlandtown. The restaurant reopened this week after a one-day shutdown when staff members tested positive for the virus.
Recent COVID cases have temporarily shut down numerous eateries already facing staffing shortages. When one employee tested positive for the virus just before Christmas, Italian bistro Forno shut down to give workers time to get tested. Since then, three additional workers got back positive results. Owner Ricky Johnson chose to keep his restaurant in Baltimore’s downtown arts district closed until Tuesday.
With pandemic closures and lack of visitors and theatergoers downtown, Forno has barely stayed afloat during the pandemic. After an increase in demand during the fall, Johnson calls the past week a “stark reminder” of the steep road to recovery. “As quickly as things got back to quote-unquote ‘normal,’ it goes away just as fast.”
Another challenge: finding tests. “I have a handful right now I’m holding onto like it’s gold.”
To be sure, a few larger venues are moving ahead with gatherings, catering to pent-up demand for parties. Banditos Bar and Kitchen is hosting events at locations in Federal Hill and White Marsh. The Atlas Restaurant Group is hosting New Year’s Eve bashes at various properties in Baltimore; so is Harbor East’s Blk Swan.
And, after nearly two years of coronavirus-related restrictions, some Baltimoreans are ready to take their chances with omicron. “We canceled holiday plans last year” said Baltimore resident Owen Henry. “It was miserable.”
On Friday, Henry plans to attend a friend’s indoor party after returning home from a vacation in Florida. “I could die on the plane” back to Baltimore, he said. “I can’t live my life in total fear.” But he will take a rapid test before the party.