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‘Nothing really has changed’: Carroll restaurant owners, managers chew on lifting of capacity restrictions in Maryland

Carroll County’s eating establishments, just like their brethren around the state, have faced challenges over the last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Restaurants closed their doors for weeks when coronavirus cases started to increase last March. They reopened with limited capacity, and turned to carryout services to try and keep business flowing. Outdoor seating became a popular trend, but when the weather turned cold some places had to deal with a decline in patrons.

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Gov. Larry Hogan’s latest directive, which goes into effect Friday, March 12 at 5 p.m., allows bars and restaurants to allow as many customers as they like for indoor and outdoor dining. However, customers still need to remain seated and socially distanced.

Tables are still required to be 6 feet apart, and face covering rule remain in effect for customers and employees. Barriers between booths can us used now, rather than keeping every other booth closed.

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For indoor dining, the maximum table size increased to 10 people. The order doesn’t list a maximum for outdoor dining. Also, self-serve buffets can reopen, with some specific requirements from the Maryland Department of Health.

The state’s lifting of its restrictions is drawing mixed reactions from Carroll restaurant owners and managers, as well as county officials alike. But they seem to agree it’s a move toward getting back to normal.

“We obviously welcome the lifting of the restraints. We need the lifting of the restraints,” Dante Liberatore, owner of Liberatore’s Ristorante in Eldersburg, said Wednesday via text message. “Our guests are ready to gather/celebrate and get back to enjoying dinner and drinks with friends.”

Liberatore said his establishment has had to turn away customers certain nights because it had reached capacity under Maryland’s current 50% capacity rule. Restaurants require a certain volume of business to pay for overhead, Liberatore said, and that can’t be reached unless there’s “brisk” activity and patrons are frequenting the restaurant.

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Kim Baugh, co-owner of Sykesville Station in Sykesville, said the biggest difference will be with people’s perception. Baugh said said Friday’s lifting is a step in the right direction, but “I think it’s going to be a while before we’re 100 percent back to normal.”

Having more than six people to a table will help Sykesville Station, Baugh said, and the restaurant can plan for buffets and events such as a Bloody Mary bar in the future. Easter weekend could see a boom in business, Baugh said.

Exterior of the Sykesville Station restaurant, built in 1883 as a B & O Railroad station by Ephraim Francis Baldwin. The restaurant celebrates a grand opening today. August 19, 2020.
Exterior of the Sykesville Station restaurant, built in 1883 as a B & O Railroad station by Ephraim Francis Baldwin. The restaurant celebrates a grand opening today. August 19, 2020. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

But she’s hesitant to consider things completely normal.

“We still have a fair amount of people who won’t sit inside,” said Baugh, who took over the former Baldwin Station with co-owner and husband D’Alan Baugh last August. “We have that big platform on the back of the restaurant, and through October, beginning of November, we jam-packed that [area]. That was ‘outside,’ before we closed it in, and tables 6 feet apart. People were comfortable sitting out there.”

Jim Breuer, an owner of Maggie’s Restaurant in Westminster for 30 years, said Wednesday via text message that he didn’t think much would change for his establishment. Maggie’s might be able to add a few tables for customers, but with the other restrictions still in place and “depending on the size of the building it really doesn’t make a whole lot of difference.”

County Commissioner Stephen Wantz talked during Thursday’s Board of County Commissioners meeting and said it’s a “Catch-22″ situation.

“Folks need to remember that these restaurants aren’t going to be, boom, back open again,” Wantz said. “What does full capacity mean? When your tables are 6-foot distance apart, that’s not full capacity.”

Sarah Redding, a manager at Johanssons Dining House in Westminster, said via text message that “nothing really has changed” in how the restaurant is going to operate.

“How can we utilize the full capacity when tables must still maintain 6 feet apart,” Redding said. “Johansson’s is very fortunate that we have another dining room we can open. Unfortunately, we still have the restrictions so business back to normal will have to wait.”

Redding said Johanssons Down Under, located underneath the Main Street establishment, will not open yet. Johanssons will be closed on St. Patrick’s Day, she said, and sister restaurant O’Lordans Irish Pub & Restaurant will be carryout only that day. No indoor or outdoor seating will be available, Redding said.

O’Lordans posted March 5 on its Facebook page to let people know the restaurant would be closed March 17, and the governor’s latest ruling didn’t change that decision.

The Carroll County Health Department plans on notifying county restaurants with updated regulations and a “frequently asked questions” email once the state’s health department submits its own FAQ list, health planner Maggie Kunz said in an email.

“We will continue to go to facilities based on complaints from the community,” Kunz said. “We are also starting to do our food inspections so we will confirm that facilities are following proper procedures.”

Mike McMullin, president of Carroll County Chamber of Commerce, said he thinks area dining establishments are excited about the ruling and what it means going forward. McMullin said in a voice mail when he heard Oriole Park at Camden Yards can reopen at 50% capacity, per the governor’s ruling, “That really starts to look like they’re getting ready to go back to a very large sense of actual normalcy for us around here.”

“Hopefully with the vaccine getting rolled out, the more we get the more things will be able to go back 100 percent to normal,” McMullin said. “So I would say this is a really good sign. Haven’t really spoken to any of the restaurants right now. This just happened. But I do believe this is a pretty exciting thing and that we should all be pretty happy about it, especially after being locked down for so much of the past year.”

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