Baltimore mayor Jack Young has moved the city into Phase II of reopening businesses. This would loosen restrictions on many city businesses.
After weighing Baltimore’s unique risk of contagion in Maryland due to its tightly packed blocks of rowhouses, dense urban streets and high rates of chronic disease, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young announced Friday the city would join the rest of the state in the next phase of coronavirus recovery.
Restaurants were permitted to offer a limited number of guests seats indoors beginning at 5 p.m. Friday. Pools, houses of worship, salons, gyms and social amenities, such as the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore and National Aquarium, were allowed to open — with precautions in place — as the number of COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations trended downward.
“All of these things are low risk, but not without risk,” Young, a Democrat, said at a news conference Friday. “The threat of COVID-19 is still present in Baltimore City.
“If things take a turn for the worse, I will not hesitate to reinstate restrictions.”
The city enters Phase 2 of the recovery two weeks after Gov. Larry Hogan authorized such reopenings under the state’s “Roadmap to Recovery.” The Republican governor left it up to local officials to decide when to lift restrictions in their communities.
Some jurisdictions, including Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, initially adopted slower reopening plans than the state. Others, such as Harford and Howard counties, went along with the governor’s orders.
Baltimore City joined Montgomery County in moving to Phase 2 Friday evening. Meanwhile, Washington, D.C., plans to move Monday to the second phase of its recovery, allowing playgrounds, libraries, gyms and nail salons to reopen with restrictions.
Across Maryland, more than 63,500 cases of COVID-19 have been reported since March, when state officials began collecting data, including almost 7,000 in Baltimore. At least 2,901 people have died across the state with 301 deaths in the city.
Given the risks, not all Baltimore establishments — or members of the public — were ready for a wider reopening.
Within two hours of the mayor’s announcement, Jason Daniloski, owner of the Silver Queen Cafe on Harford Road in Hamilton, announced on the restaurant’s Facebook page that it will remain closed for everything but carryout service.
“We feel that opening at 50% capacity is premature,” his post read. “As we watch other states’ COVID-19 cases rise, we are choosing to remain cautious, and therefore will NOT be opening our dining room.”
Daniloski said in an interview that he’ll keep an eye on health statistics as more businesses open their doors in Baltimore and will consider reopening if and when case numbers continue to decline.
“We have a really small restaurant,” he said. “For the sake of our staff and the people who are at high risk, and for the safety of our families, we’re going to continue offering carryout only.”
Rob Frisch, owner of the Mount Washington Tavern in Mount Washington, had the opposite reaction. He called the mayor’s decision a relief and said his staff couldn’t wait to resume serving diners. Despite the obstacles involved in “restarting on a dime,” such as organizing staff schedules, Frisch planned to reopen the tavern Friday night.
“We’ve been down for so long,” he said. “We’ve been doing curbside and carryout, but those are obviously limited by weather. We’re looking forward to being able to take reservations and operate at 50% capacity.”
The city could enter its final phase of recovery in as soon as two weeks. New cases, hospitalizations and deaths would need to continue trending downward. If those indicators tick upward for a 5-day stretch, the city would reimpose restrictions.
Under the latest reopening phase, childcare providers can increase the number of children in a classroom to 15; gyms can reopen at limited capacity; libraries, museums, restaurants and retailers can open at 50% capacity.
Offices and nonessential businesses can reopen at 50% capacity, although the city said telecommuting remains preferred. Places of worship can allow up to 50% of maximum occupancy. The Horseshoe Casino can reopen at 50% capacity with other safeguards.
Young allowed nonessential retailers to open a week ago with restrictions and authorized restaurants to serve people at outdoor tables. Barbershops and hair salons were allowed to reopen by appointment only.
Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa warned city residents and visitors on Friday to continue to take the virus seriously.
“The decision to reopen does not mean that we are back to normal or that we have defeated the disease and the coronavirus has somehow disappeared,” Dzirasa said. “Every day in Baltimore City we’re still seeing new cases of COVID-19.”
Dr. Leana Wen, a former Baltimore health commissioner and public health professor at George Washington University, said now that city and state leaders have made the choice to reopen, it is up to individuals to use precautions.
“The virus is just as contagious as ever,” she said. “I hope that people will keep in mind that just because we can now do something, doesn’t means that we should.”
Wen said that especially in Baltimore, where the population disproportionately suffers from underlying health conditions due to inequities, people must evaluate their risks and the harm spreading the virus may cause their loved ones.
Her advice: “If you are going to get together, get together outside, stay 6 feet apart and wear a mask. Don’t share food, drinks or utensils.”
The mayor’s announcement caught Jackie Copeland of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture by surprise. Though the museum’s executive director was pleased to hear it had permission to reopen as soon as 5 p.m. Friday, realistically, she said, it likely would wait until after Labor Day.
“There are a lot of considerations involved in making sure our museum is safe for visitors,” Copeland said. “Some of the supplies we need, such as face masks, are on back order. We’re happy, though. We’ll just have to hit the ‘ramp up’ and ‘reopen’ buttons at the same time.”
A spokeswoman for National Aquarium said the staff was thrilled the organization has received the go-ahead to proceed with their plans to reopen July 1.
“We are pleased to know that now it is a reality,” aquarium spokeswoman Jennifer Reardon wrote in an email. Details, including new safety measures, will be made public next week.
Besides cultural attractions, Young’s announcement allows research and university libraries to reopen at 50% capacity. But the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s 22 branches are public buildings, which system spokeswoman Meghan McCorkell said places them in a different category.
The Pratt opened non-contact sidewalk services Monday at eight libraries, including the central library downtown, and plans to introduce those services at four more locations next month. Library users may reserve books online or on the phone, make appointments for sidewalk pickup, and return books under the system.
McCorkell said the Pratt is consulting with other leading libraries across the country and making adjustments to its interior layouts with an eye toward offering safe, limited, in-person service sometime in August, if possible.
Juggling the risks, demands and complications continued for venues throughout the city.
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The changes will have minimal immediate impact on Catholic churches in the city, said Mary Ellen Russell, the community affairs director for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The archdiocese has allowed parishes elsewhere to hold Mass indoors as local restrictions eased, but it’s found attendance has been sparse at those churches, almost certainly due to ongoing concerns about the safety of gathering in groups.
For similar reasons, it’s likely that few city parishes will reopen right away, Russell said. Livestreaming of worship will continue, and a decision by Archbishop William Lori to suspend the obligation to attend Mass in person remains in effect.
Ardyth Hall, owner of Push511 CrossFit in Canton, said Young’s announcement was too sudden for her to consider reopening her gym Friday for indoor classes. She said the first day of indoor sessions will be June 29.
Hall said her outdoor sessions will continue for members wary of exercising in an enclosed area. She is worried about a second wave of the coronavirus that could cause businesses to close again.
“If a second wave comes, that’s going to be devastating,” Hall said.