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Plight of restaurants: For them to carry on, we need to carry out | COMMENTARY

Philomena Scalia, 91, admires the broccoli rabe delivered by Isabella's Brick Oven owner Dan Stewart, who makes frequent deliveries to nearby residents of Little Italy who are not venturing outside during the coronavirus pandemic. Stewart says that Scalia, a lifelong resident of Little Italy, taught him how to make a tasty rapini from broccoli rabe. April 23, 2020
Philomena Scalia, 91, admires the broccoli rabe delivered by Isabella's Brick Oven owner Dan Stewart, who makes frequent deliveries to nearby residents of Little Italy who are not venturing outside during the coronavirus pandemic. Stewart says that Scalia, a lifelong resident of Little Italy, taught him how to make a tasty rapini from broccoli rabe. April 23, 2020 (Amy Davis)

City Café in Mount Vernon. Ryleigh’s Oyster in Federal Hill. The Alexander Brown Restaurant downtown. Each week seems to herald the sad announcement of another permanent closure of a popular restaurant in Baltimore. And it’s hardly limited to the city. Across the country, industry observers predict that about one-quarter of restaurants won’t be reopening no matter how COVID-19 pandemic-related restrictions are eased. Few businesses have been hit quite as hard as the hospitality industry generally, and restaurants more specifically. Restaurants lost an estimated 5.5 million jobs for chefs, servers, hosts, cashiers and all the rest in April, according to government estimates. That’s roughly the same number of people living in Maryland over the age of 8.

While many Americans are suffering during this global pandemic — most especially those who have lost friends and loved ones to the virus — there is no denying that the economic consequences have been difficult, too. And there’s something particularly personal about losing restaurants beyond the simple accounting of job losses, unpaid bills and bankruptcy filings. For many, the neighborhood restaurant is more than a local business. It’s a gathering place, a comfort zone, a landmark for generations. It’s where we often bring our families together, where holiday meals are held, where wedding receptions and anniversary dinners are hosted. We know the names of our servers and bartenders, and they know us, too.

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Recently, one of the more prominent figures in Baltimore’s Little Italy suggested that the city should allow outdoor seating in closed off streets in his neighborhood, an offer Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young refused. Not because he wasn’t sympathetic, but because the so-called “curbside-plus” dining posed too great a risk for further spreading of the coronavirus at this time, and he threatened to take enforcement actions if his stay-at-home order was ignored. This underscores how difficult it is to balance competing bad choices. On the one hand is compounding the public health risk, and on the other is compounding the worsening financial disaster. You have to pick your poison. Leaning toward the less potentially deadly option is understandable, but still painful.

Make no mistake, the time is nearly at hand when phase one of the state’s reopening plan will be fully implemented and outdoor dining will be possible in every Maryland subdivision, Baltimore included. Closing streets, as other cities have done to accommodate outdoor dining, is a wonderful idea. But any restaurateur who believe this alone will solve their problems is sadly mistaken. As we’ve also seen elsewhere, patrons are reluctant to return — to outdoor dining and to 25% capacity indoor dining, too. Many simply can’t afford it anymore. There’s an economic recession going on, and while eating outdoors with proper precautions (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers pages of them) is safer than traditional indoor dining, it’s not risk-free. Customers will have to make choices. There will be a period of transition and adjustment. Pre-pandemic life is not going to return so quickly.

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In the meantime, here’s what should be done. Marylanders who can afford it — which is still most of us, even as unemployment has skyrocketed — must order carryout and delivery from our local restaurants whenever possible. It’s the safest way to support the restaurant industry, and it might just make the difference between survival and a permanent shutdown for mom-and-pop operators. This is particularly true in city neighborhoods where restaurants are supported by a daytime business trade that has essentially evaporated as people work from home. Some restaurants are selling groceries, too, and that’s a fine way to underwrite them as well. Finicky chefs and their top-flight suppliers they’ve cultivated over the years may well be providing a premium product at a competitive price. That’s a tasty win-win.

In pre-pandemic days, we patronized restaurants only when we felt like it. Maybe that equation needs to be adjusted slightly. It’s time to turn the tables and show a little extra hospitality toward the people who have taken such good care of us.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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