Carroll County may have already seen the last vestige of ideal conditions for outdoor dining, with colder temperatures on tap and local restaurants trying to cope with the latest COVID-19 restrictions to maintain business.
Maryland is clamping down on limits when it comes to social gatherings and scaling back the number of indoor dining patrons to 50% capacity, per Gov. Larry Hogan’s latest news conferences.
Many of those restaurants have taken measures to keep people comfortable should they choose to dine outdoors, but with temperatures dipping and winter weather coming soon, several owners have said it’s a daunting challenge.
Maggie’s Restaurant in Westminster has been successful over the last eight months, owner Jim Breuer said, thanks to dedicating part of its main parking lot to a tent and tables for customers. The tent was open on the sides for ventilation, but that meant it coming down once the weather turned.
The tent removal is scheduled for Sunday, leaving Breuer to wonder how business will be affected going forward.
“It’s going to be a tough period,” he said last week. “We’ll get through November. I’m not quite sure what December is going to bring.”
Success is a relative term for restaurants in the time of COVID-19. Breuer said Maggie’s, like many in and around Carroll County, has done well enough to survive and pay bills. But many customers choose not to eat indoors out of safety and health concerns, despite the warmer months behind them.
And many establishments aren’t willing or able to shell out the money needed to properly equip an area outside their current structures that can accommodate diners during the winter. Plus, once you enclose any additional space, Breuer said, you’re down to half the tables you had a few weeks ago.
Maggie’s patio and porch area will still be in use, Breuer said, for those who don’t mind braving the conditions.
“We’re basically moving inside,” he said. “If there’s a nice day and someone wants to sit out there, God bless them, we’ll put them out there.”
That’s sort of how Rafael’s Restaurant in Westminster is going to view the winter, said server and bartender Kristy Harrison.
Rafael’s uses its outdoor deck throughout the year, and Harrison said owner Rafael Javier is using portable heaters to keep anyone eating outside warm. Javier also reconfigured some of the space under the deck to allow for a few more tables, Harrison said.
But the thought of winter approaching ― and fewer people dining outdoors ― has Harrison and her fellow employees unsure of how business will go.
“I would say we’re absolutely worried,” Harrison said. “Every time Larry Hogan comes on, we all kind of freeze and hold our breath until he gets done telling us what’s going on. I can speak for my co-workers, we’re definitely concerned. It’s like, our livelihood, and it’s smaller businesses, how are they going to survive through that again? And I see it happening again. I really do.”
What restaurants likely don’t want to do is create a “greenhouse” of sorts, because doctors say such spaces might wind up creating unsafe conditions.
Dr. Morgan Katz, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University, said that when it comes to transmission of the coronavirus, outdoor tents that are closed on all four sides could be riskier than just eating indoors. That’s because enclosed restaurants have ventilation and air filtration systems that tents lack.
Memories Charcoal House in Mount Airy recently turned its patio area into a covered eating space, with heaters set up and ventilation areas so as not to close it entirely. But rainy weather and chilly temperatures in the middle of last week meant it didn’t drum up too much business during the afternoon hours despite Memories’ all-day happy hour specials.
Greenmount Station owner Chris Richards said over the weekend restaurant staff removed a handful of parking lot tables because of the climate change. The Hampstead establishment still has seven tables spaced out along its front walk area, with heaters, as well as a dedicated outdoor bar patio space adjacent to the building. And Richards said customers filled many of those outside tables Friday night despite 40-degree temperatures.
“Without the outdoor dining, it would have been a lot worse than what it was,” Richards said about the last several months. “We’re going to make the best of the situation, and we’re going to try to make people comfortable whether they’re inside, outside or wherever. Hopefully come springtime we won’t be worried about it.”
Texas Roadhouse in Westminster has much of its side parking lot devoted to a large tent, and senior service manager Dave Beal said some 50% of the restaurant’s business has come from outdoor dining in recent months.
Beal said it costs around $7,000 per month to heat and operate the tent. Customers who came out Thursday evening were treated to some live music while they sat in 68-degree, climate controlled conditions (temperatures fell below 50 outside after sundown).
By working in a more corporate setting with the national chain restaurant, Beal said he’s not as concerned as some of Carroll’s small-business owners when it comes to making it through the winter.
“This is just us selling it to the customers,” said Beal, a Westminster resident. “Getting the guests to believe that it’s not that bad in there.”
Not every establishment can afford, or has room for, such luxuries. But they have been making due.
Liberatore’s Ristorante in Eldersburg has dedicated space for outdoor dining, and owner Dante Liberatore said that seating was very successful during the summer. Customers are willing to come inside once the outdoor dining experience ceases to be a viable option, he said.
“We’re experiencing the guests who are otherwise outside are coming inside,” Liberatore said. “Are there some of them who are just simply, if they can’t sit outside they won’t come in at all? Yes, there are. But we have a big restaurant. We have three to four rooms in which we can put our guests. So our ability to maintain 6 feet apart is easily attainable.”
The holiday months that are usually rife with restaurants hosting company parties and large gatherings won’t be the same this year. Harrison pointed to the night before Thanksgiving as one of the biggest of the year for bars and dining places, but in 2020 it’s more like altered hours of operation and canceling events because of statewide restrictions.
Breuer said he had four parties booked for this holiday season, at 35-50 people per party. Now that number is zero, because of COVID-19, and for Maggie’s and others that’s lost income during an otherwise slow stretch of the year.
Not being able to make some of that up by offering outdoor seating could be troublesome as cases continue to rise around the region.
“The only way, if [customers are] looking for some way to help, is to buy gift cards,” Breuer said. “At this point, get gift cards and help the businesses out if they do that. ... I am concerned, but my feeling is if we can retract it enough that we can stay alive until March, I think it will blossom.”
Still, for local restaurant owners and staff, spring likely seems to be light-years away.
“I have a lot of phone calls asking to do certain things for weddings. And I have to tell them no. I can’t do it. All of us are telling them no. It’s sad,” Harrison said. “I just miss normalcy, whatever that means. I’m not sure what that means.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Christina Tkacik contributed to this story.