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Harford restaurants owners concerned as coronavirus cases spike elsewhere; county has no plans to restrict indoor dining

Alexis Mills, waitress at Coakley's Pub, wears a masks as she takes orders from lunchtime customers inside the Havre de Grace restaurant on Wednesday, July 22.
Alexis Mills, waitress at Coakley's Pub, wears a masks as she takes orders from lunchtime customers inside the Havre de Grace restaurant on Wednesday, July 22. (Brian Krista/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

At Coakley’s Pub in Havre de Grace, outdoor dining continues to do well, but owner Margie Coakley says there is lingering apprehension when it comes to indoor dining.

Perhaps that’s because of national reports about coronavirus cases spiking in states like Florida, California and Texas, that prompted re-closing bars and restaurants there. Or maybe it was Gov. Larry Hogan’s recent warning to county health officials and leaders to more strictly enforce regulations on indoor dining earlier this month, as the number of COVID-19 cases among Maryland’s young people increased.

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“I think if we would have just quarantined longer, we would not have had this resurgence,” Coakley said. “There is still quite a lot of hesitation to come inside.”

Despite calls from health officers in more populated Maryland jurisdictions asking the governor to tighten restricts on bars and restaurants, the state has no plans to do so.

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“We do not intend to suddenly close all of our small businesses,” Hogan said in a press conference Wednesday. “We do not want to crush our economy.”

But that hasn’t stopped local leaders from tightening restrictions on businesses elsewhere.

On Thursday, Anne Arundel County announced it would impose new late-night restrictions on restaurants and bars, limit food-court style facilities to carry-out only and cap social gathering sizes. Earlier in the week, Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young restricted indoor dining altogether for at least two weeks to address the rising metrics.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. stopped short of imposing renewed restrictions on bars and restaurants, but announced the county was now requiring all residents over the age of 2 wear face coverings in all indoor public spaces.

Thus far, Harford County Executive Barry Glassman has no plans to suspend or further restrict indoor dining.

“We work closely with the Health Department, we are monitoring the [coronavirus] metrics for Harford County,” said Cindy Mumby, a spokesperson for Glassman’s administration. “Fortunately, our positivity rate is below the state average and the recommended 5%. Among the 11 largest Maryland jurisdictions with over 1,000 cases, Harford County has the lowest number of cases and fatalities per capita.”

Harford County has surpassed 1,500 confirmed cases since the pandemic took hold in March, and at least 63 people have died from the disease, according to the latest data from the state released Thursday. There have been 25,285 people tested in the county, just shy of 10% of Harford’s total population.

The county’s rolling, seven-day average positivity rate of 4.37% on Thursday was an increase from the previous few days, but remains below the statewide average of 4.56%.

County government will continue its messaging to residents and businesses to continue following CDC guidelines including the importance of face masks, social distancing and thorough hand-washing, which, Mumby said, “has helped us get where we are today.”

“The county executive has said, and continues to say, we need to manage the pandemic and preserve local business at the same time,” she added.

That’s a welcome sentiment to Dan Brown, the owner of Sean Bolan’s Pub on Main Street in Bel Air, who said he’s very worried about the prospect of shuttering businesses again.

When the pub was only offering carryout, its sales were cut by about two-thirds. Since reopening for limited indoor dining, sales have jumped to just over half of what they usually are.

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Brown was able to fare better than others because he owns his building and does not have to pay rent, but said many other businesses are not so lucky.

”We are still struggling and now I am worried that they are going to shut us down again,” he said. “It would be a death sentence for a lot of businesses.”

For eateries like Savona, also on Main Street in Bel Air, additional restrictions on indoor dining might not have as much of a significant negative impact.

Owner Maria Boeri said much of her business is done through carryout — the restaurant seats about 20 people, she estimated — and the price of keeping people safe would be worth any such closure.

“I would not be devastated,” she said. “I would do whatever is safe for our people.”

And business has been good at Savona — even a little more than Boeri was accustomed to during years before the coronavirus pandemic rippled through the state. She attributes the consistency of business to county residents’ lack of travel plans.

“I just do not think people are going away,” Boeri said. “I think they are staying at home and sick of cooking.”

Coakley, though, said she worries for her employees if restaurants would have to revert back to carryout-only business for any period of time.

“I just do not know what I am going to do with my staff again,” she said. “We are living on pins and needles; we do not know what is going to happen to us one day or the next.”

Boeri, too, worries about whether a staff member were to test positive for the virus and what it would mean for the business. She would have to call the health department and close Savona if that were to happen.

“I am nervous if one of my employees gets sick I would have to close down,” she said. “That would be a horrible thing — everybody’s hearts are in their throats, I think.”

If he were forced to close again, Brown said he would consider disobeying the order. With little space for outdoor dining in front of the pub, he said a closure of indoor dining would cut deep into his business.

“I just do not feel the government has a right to tell me that I have to to close my business that I use to support my family and support myself,” he said. “I did what I had to do for 12 weeks, [but] this could go on for years, months.”

Brown said the virus was serious, but the economic devastation of closing down businesses — coupled with governmental coronavirus relief measures like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) — sets up for considerable pecuniary issues ahead.

”This is going to have ramifications that are going to effect us economically for the next 10 years,” he said. “How much money can they keep giving out without crippling our economy?”

Aegis editor S. Wayne Carter Jr. contributed to this article.

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