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Harford restaurants prepare for expanded indoor dining after Maryland Gov. Hogan lifts COVID restrictions

When patrons visit MaGerk’s Pub in Bel Air this weekend, they can enjoy live music and a dance party Saturday to kick off this year’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations — plus more live music when the holiday falls next Wednesday — but regulations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 such as mask wearing, maintaining social distance and remaining seated rather than standing in groups by the bar will still be in place.

“Safety is our first concern, so we’re still going to abide by the rules,” MaGerk’s manager Amie Bradfield said Wednesday afternoon.

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The South Bond Street establishment had some patrons seated at the bar and many more at tables on the outdoor patio for lunchtime on the sunny, late winter afternoon. More patrons are expected inside starting Friday when state restrictions on indoor dining are lifted, in accordance with Gov. Larry Hogan’s latest orders.

Bars and restaurants in Maryland, which have been limited to 50% of seating capacity indoors and out, will be able to go to full capacity as of 5 p.m. Friday. The statewide mask mandate is still in effect.

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Restaurant patrons still must maintain physical distance from each other and stay seated when they are in an establishment — they cannot stand in a crowd around the bar, according to Hogan. Bradfield echoed those rules for MaGerk’s customers.

“The same rules apply,” she said.

Bradfield stressed that she and her colleagues want patrons to feel safe when at the restaurant. She thinks that the governor is sending a message to communities that Marylanders have been “playing by the rules, and the numbers are down; as a result, it’s OK” to go out to a local restaurant. She noted that regular customers have been visiting recently as the number of COVID cases decreases and more people can get vaccinated.

“We’re starting to see quite a few people in the past month that we haven’t seen in the past year, which is wonderful,” Bradfield said.

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Robert and Tegan Ghirardello, of Bel Air, sat at a table inside as they waited to be seated on the patio.

“I’m OK with it as long as they’re maintaining proper distances,” Robert said of increasing indoor capacity. “I just don’t think people should rush to pretend everything is OK.”

He and his wife don’t plan to go out for St. Patrick’s Day, as they expect restaurants will be too crowded. They have eaten indoors at restaurants, “as long as they’re following procedures and have social distancing and things like that,” Tegan said.

“If it looks too crowded, we won’t go,” Robert added.

Host BellaMia DeBrigida said groups of friends and families should be able to sit at the same tables with capacity being increased. MaGerk’s has been following multiple safety precautions such as having hand sanitizer available, wiping down menus and tables and masking, and that people should be safe if the restaurant continues with those precautions, she said.

Bartender Cody Hughes said there has been “a pretty good turnout” with capacity at 50%, and he expects going to 100% will be a morale booster for employees, as “everyone’s been struggling for so long” in the local restaurant industry.

“As long as people are wearing masks and all that, I think we’ll be all right,” he said of maintaining employee safety, noting that he expects a quicker return to pre-COVID normalcy if people continue wearing masks.

Pat Howard and Mary Ann Manly ate together indoors Wednesday; both said they feel secure because MaGerk’s staff is adhering to safety protocols.

“I feel safe coming here, and I know that there’s not a lot of people around,” Howard said. “And, it’s big enough that people are spread out.”

Another Bel Air establishment, Margherita’s Italian restaurant off of South Main Street, will not go back to full capacity Friday, however. Co-owner Jama Argueta said Margherita’s will remain at 50% capacity for the time being.

”In the weeks to come, we’ll see how we feel, and how the employees feel about it,” she said late Wednesday morning. “Everybody needs to feel comfortable.”

The restaurant operators want to ensure they can still maintain social distancing even while increasing indoor capacity, according to Argueta.

Margherita’s will open outdoor dining once the weather warms up on a consistent basis, and many customers have been supporting the restaurant with carryout orders.

”I think it helps that we’re in the Bel Air community,” said Argueta, who praised how people support local businesses.

Brothers George and Paul Karoutsos opened their Mr. Souvlaki restaurant in Forest Hill in 2020 after having to close their location in the Mount Vernon Marketplace in Baltimore early last year. The brothers also plan to run their food truck throughout Harford County.

“We plan to uphold the CDC guidelines as required, maintaining masks and social distancing, to ensure the safety of our patrons,” George said.

Customer Peter Johnson, of Abingdon, said he “absolutely” feels comfortable dining at Mr. Souvlaki, which is off of Rock Spring Road.

“The place is always clean when I come in,” Johnson said. “The customer service is impeccable, good buddies and the food is amazing.”

Maria Boeri, who owns Savona on North Main Street with her husband, will begin offering indoor seating starting Friday.

The restaurant, which offered carryout and outdoor seating, has remained closed for indoor dining despite the state relaxing restrictions in recent months.

“We’re so small, and people were on top of each other,” Boeri said. “We took the hits for the good of everyone. We’ve still been supported — my gosh, our town really supports us.”

Boeri chatted with customer Barbara Jefferson, who came in to pick up a carryout meal, about the governor’s most recent order.

Jefferson, a Bel Air resident, said she thinks “it’s about time” that restaurants open at full indoor capacity. She feels comfortable going to a restaurant as long as people keep wearing masks and social distancing, plus she has been fully vaccinated, a process she described as “a piece of cake.”

“Just let me be out with my friends,” Jefferson said. “[I have] no problem with the masks, no problem with social distancing, I just want to be out of the house.”

Bel Air resident Anthony McAdarra came in with his three daughters, ages 14, 13 and 9, and the quartet ordered sandwiches that they ate outside.

“I think it’s an executive decision that adults have to make on their own, and it shouldn’t be government regulated,” he said of dining inside or outdoors.

McAdarra also called for lifting the state’s mask mandate — he wore a mask, and his children did so, too, while in the restaurant.

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“People should make their own decisions,” he said. “If they don’t feel comfortable, then they should wear a mask.”

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Deli worker Jade Stephens wore as mask as she and her co-workers prepared orders. She noted that the masks help, as “it’s a lot of close quarters” in the food preparation area.

Stephens said she knows people who think masks don’t work as a way to prevent the spread of coronavirus, but she encourages everyone to keep wearing them, since “you’re showing you’re trying to be safe for the community.”

Aegis photographer Matt Button contributed to this story.

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