Over the past two weeks, Barb Ripani has seen a change in the clientele who walk into Potato Valley on State Circle in Annapolis.
From January to April, Ripani corrals hordes of politicians, lobbyists and legislative aides who crowd into the popular lunch spot she’s co-owned for 27 years. She knows about half of their orders by heart, she said. But after Monday, nearly all of those regular customers will disappear when the 2022 Maryland General Assembly session adjourns.
The customers at Potato Valley will morph into a line of out-of-towners and transient visitors, many of whom aren’t familiar with the massive baked potatoes stacked high with bacon, cheese, veggies and other condiments.
“It’s fun. We try to give them samples and get to know who they are,” Ripani said.
This summer will be the first full warm season since before the coronavirus pandemic began more than two years ago that businesses won’t be hamstrung by mask mandates, seating limits and other restrictions. Ripani is relishing the opportunity.
“There will be some excitement for the tourist season,” she said. “We’ll probably have more staff and look at rearranging our seating.”
Annapolis has started to get back to normal in recent weeks thanks to high attendance at events like the St. Patrick’s Day parade, Maryland Day and the Annapolis Film Festival, said Erik Evans, executive director of Downtown Annapolis Partnership, a nonprofit business organization.
Similar turnouts are expected for the spring boat shows this month and Naval Academy Commissioning Week in May.
“I am glad to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Evans said.
The rosy outlook for the next few months is shared by other business owners in town, many of whom are thrilled to finally have the pandemic mostly in the rearview. Last week, Maryland reported a testing positivity rate of around 2%, up slightly from where it had been since early March.
In the first quarter of the year, attendance and revenues have begun to creep up to pre-pandemic levels at Federal House on Market Space, owner Jeremy Black said.
Black is among five restaurant owners from Iron Rooster, McGarvey’s, Middleton Tavern and Market House who’ve banded together to secure a multiyear lease with the city to provide outdoor seating around the historic Market House. Those businesses, along with 1771 G&T, have drawn the attention of visitors who now view the area as a central gathering place, Black said.
Some businesses, however, won’t have the benefit of the expanded outdoor eating space.
In November, the city scrapped other outdoor dining areas, called recovery zones, in the Historic District, Eastport and other places. A state of emergency order issued by Mayor Gavin Buckley in December has allowed some restaurants to continue serving food and drinks in private parking lots.
On Monday, the City Council will consider a resolution that would extend those outdoor dining permissions for an additional 12 months.
While restaurants have started to recover, it may take longer for hotels and similar businesses to return to pre-pandemic levels, said Kristen Pironis, executive director of Visit Annapolis and Anne Arundel County.
The slower rebound is due in part to staffing shortages and hotels keeping their rates lower to attract customers, Pironis said.
Lisa Consiglio-Ryan, the owner of Rasa Juice Shop on Maryland Avenue, said her business has thrived over the past two years despite the pandemic and expects this summer to bring more good fortune.
Consiglio-Ryan will be opening a second location this summer a few blocks down at the former City Dock Coffee location. In preparation, the business is hiring more employees, buying more products and “juicing more juice,” she said.
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“I’m super excited and we’re extremely positive [about tourist season],” Consiglio-Ryan said. “We have tons of energy for everybody to come into town.”
Some business owners and residents, especially those who live in the Historic District, have raised concerns that tourism could be disrupted by the impending demolition of Noah Hillman Garage later this month. The construction project, which is expected to last until next summer, will remove 425 spots from the downtown parking equation.
“It’s going to be a devastating outcome for the downtown community,” said Kostas Alexakis, owner of O’Brien’s Oyster Bar and Seafood Tavern.
The parking and transportation alternatives the city has proposed, including free rides on the Annapolis Circulator bus, trolley cars and on-demand service, aren’t enough to accommodate visitors, Alexakis said. He and other business owners have pitched the city on delaying the garage rebuild until later in the year to minimize disruptions to tourists.
Black isn’t worried about the lack of parking potentially impacting his business, and compared the situation to those in other cities like Baltimore where parking isn’t nearly as convenient around popular destinations.
“If you want to go to an Orioles game, you can’t just park right in front of Camden Yards. You’re parking in a garage at the Sheraton Hotel six blocks away,” Black said. “But that didn’t deter you from going to the O’s game.
“The proof will be in the numbers after [Hillman] comes down and during the construction process. But I’m hoping I’m right that visitors are going to come anyway. They will just have to find alternate places to park.”