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‘A game changer’: Harford restaurant owners, staff excited about governor’s decision to lift 10 p.m. curfew

Miranda Sanders, center, waits on Mary Allan, left, and her son Colin Allan of Bel Air at Sean Bolan's Irish Pub in October. Sean Bolan's owner, Dave Brown, praised Gov. Larry Hogan's decision Thursday to rescind the order that restaurants must close by 10 p.m.
Miranda Sanders, center, waits on Mary Allan, left, and her son Colin Allan of Bel Air at Sean Bolan's Irish Pub in October. Sean Bolan's owner, Dave Brown, praised Gov. Larry Hogan's decision Thursday to rescind the order that restaurants must close by 10 p.m. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Harford County bars and restaurants can resume service after 10 p.m. starting next week, following Gov. Larry Hogan’s announcement Thursday.

Hogan lifted the curfew that was put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19. The new executive order takes effect at 12:01 a.m. Monday. Bars and restaurants must continue to limit indoor dining to 50% capacity, a measure intended to allow social distancing and decrease potential exposure to the coronavirus.

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While local jurisdictions have the ability to be more restrictive than the state prescribes, County Executive Barry Glassman has largely been in lockstep with Hogan’s administration throughout the pandemic when it comes to restrictions.

“As has been our policy Harford County will continue to safely reopen to the fullest extent permitted by Gov. Hogan, and we will follow today’s announcement allowing restaurants and bars to resume service after 10 p.m. starting Monday,” Glassman, a Republican, said in a statement.

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“This week also happens to be Harford County Restaurant Week, and I encourage Marylanders to support our great local restaurants this week and beyond.”

Restaurant Week began last Friday, with eateries offering discounts on certain menu items and occasionally trying out new menu items. Because of COVID-19 restrictions limiting capacity for indoor dining, some Harford restaurants were offering takeout specials this year. The annual initiative is designed to drum up business during the slow winter months.

In light of the news, officials with Visit Harford, which organizes the promotional event, said Restaurant Week would be extended to Thursday, Feb. 4. It was originally slated to end Sunday.

“This extends Restaurant Week to take advantage of the new longer hours, but also allows restaurants to get back to their regular menu options beginning Friday, Feb. 5,” Greg Pizzuto, the executive director of Visit Harford, said.

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The Cowboy Burger, topped with pepper jack cheese, smothered in golden bbq sauce and topped with large onion rings will be one of the special Restuarant Week items at Black Eyed Suzie's on Main Street in Bel Air. They along with many other local restaurants will have special menu items for Harford County Restaurant Week 2021 which begins Friday January 22 and runs through January 31, 2021.
The Cowboy Burger, topped with pepper jack cheese, smothered in golden bbq sauce and topped with large onion rings will be one of the special Restuarant Week items at Black Eyed Suzie's on Main Street in Bel Air. They along with many other local restaurants will have special menu items for Harford County Restaurant Week 2021 which begins Friday January 22 and runs through January 31, 2021. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Pizzuto was sure local businesses would be happy about the governor’s announcement, which allows them to get back to some ‘normalcy’ with their hours.

“Their employees are probably excited to as it may allow them to work hours previously cut with the 10 p.m. restriction,” he said.

Hogan issued the curfew in November amid a troubling wave in coronavirus cases as the holidays were approaching. The Republican said Thursday in a statement that the decision to drop it came as data showed improvement after the holidays.

Scott Opdyke, general manager of The Hickory Lodge north of Bel Air, said he thinks being able to open later is “fantastic” and “a relief for not just the restaurant, the business itself, but also the staff.”

He described Lodge staffers as “a very versatile group of people” who have been working through multiple changes in restaurant and bar operations over the past year, and there is “finally a little sense of relief for everyone.”

“All of the restaurants that I’m aware of, have been doing everything they can to meet guidelines” to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Opdyke said.

Opdyke noted that staff at the Lodge are “already up against the wall,” working within guidelines related to social distancing and seating capacity that limit the number of customers who can be in the establishment. Being able to remain open later gives them additional hours they can work.

”Having a couple extra hours of the day is definitely a game changer,” he said.

“It’s about time,” Dan Brown, a co-owner of Sean Bolan’s Irish Pub & Restaurant in Bel Air, said when asked his thoughts. ”It’s going to be huge, because most of the sales you do after 10 [p.m.] are all liquor sales,” he added, noting that establishments make more from liquor sales compared to food.

Brown also expressed hope that more people can get vaccinated and Bolan’s can extend its hours further and get back to a sense of normalcy.

Being able to remain open past 10 p.m. will help, but the establishment still faces challenges from social distancing requirements, limiting the amount of people who can be seated in an already-small space.

”Our place is pretty small, so I’m turning people away every weekend,” he said.

Brown noted that the customers who come in for drinks at night are in a different segment from those who come in the evening for dinner, so being able to open longer will help, overall.

”The more hours you’re open, the more money — potentially — you can make,” he said.

General manager of the Steelefish Grille Jacqueline Taylor had no idea the governor was relaxing restrictions on dining hours until told by a reporter. She figured Hogan’s 10 p.m. limit on dining would last through February, but said news of the change was welcome.

The Bel Air restaurant does not cater to a large bar crowd, Taylor said, but its kitchen does good business on the weekends. Before the pandemic, the restaurant was open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., she said, and its kitchen was open until 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

“I think it will be a good thing for everyone,” she said. “There are a lot of bars that are really hurting.”

The pandemic has cut into the restaurant’s business, Taylor said; it does about 50% — perhaps less, she said — of its normal business due to capacity restrictions. The spot was also popular for parties and rehearsal dinners, which also fell by the wayside in view of the coronavirus.

“Everyone is struggling,” she said. “Every little bit helps.”

Vickie Keithley, owner of Grumpy’s Bar and Grille in Aberdeen, responded to the news with some ambivalence. While the 10 p.m. curfew has been tough for her business, she said that people who stayed later in the evening tended to drink more.

“Then they get to where they don’t think its important to wear the mask, and you got to holler at ‘em,” she said.

Still, she said: “I will definitely be staying open later.”

Bridget Lloyd, owner of MaGerk’s Pub in Bel Air, said the governor’s announcement meant new life for the restaurant, which is only doing about 50% of its normal business at this stage in the pandemic. She was glad to hear that now, after a nearly yearlong pause, some normality is returning.

“Isn’t it lovely?” she said. “It is going to rejuvenate our business; it is going to bring life back into business.”

The pandemic has hit the eatery hard. Restaurants operate on thin margins, Lloyd said, and though the costs of opening up each day remain the same, revenues have been cut in half.

“Our revenue has been hit by 50%, and yet our overhead has remained the same, so it still costs the same to open the doors and do business and pay your staff,” she said.

Lloyd said the bar used to be packed to capacity on the weekends before the coronavirus hit Maryland.

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Before COVID, the restaurant was open seven days a week from 11:30 a.m. until 2 a.m., but the pandemic cut those hours significantly. With the governor’s announcement, though, she said the restaurant will return to its normal hours.

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Other safety guidelines, such as social distancing and mask wearing, have not changed, and restaurant customers do still have the option of getting meals to go.

”We’ve been doing an unprecedented about of carry out,” Opdyke said of the Lodge. “We’ve just never seen anything like it.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Christina Tkacik contributed to this article.

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