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Help for restaurants is on the menu | COMMENTARY

Sobo Café on West Cross Street in Federal Hill. File.
Sobo Café on West Cross Street in Federal Hill. File. (Courtesy Sobo Cafe)

Gov. Larry Hogan’s recent announcement of a $250 million withdrawal from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to provide a measure of financial relief to Maryland small businesses struggling to deal with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to draw considerable scrutiny from lawmakers. Who will decide who qualifies for aid? What safeguards will be in place to avoid waste, fraud and political favoritism? What level of transparency? But at least one component of the governor’s proposal seems exactly on target: Mr. Hogan expects $50 million to be set aside for restaurants facing a long list of pandemic-related new costs, from improved ventilation systems to sidewalk heaters, but a dramatic reduction in revenue because of the virus.

How far $50 million will go statewide is another question. Total restaurant and food service sales in Maryland amounted to $13.3 billion annually in 2018, according to the National Restaurant Association. Divide $50 million among the approximately 11,357 eating and drinking places statewide and that’s only about $4,400 a pop. Presumably, not all need help, of course. Governor Hogan’s Rainy Day withdrawal is no permanent fix but more like a single antacid tablet fighting against a sea of economic indigestion. Yet every little bit helps.

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To understand the plight facing eateries, consider what happened on Sunday, Oct. 18 at Annoula’s SoBo Café on Cross Street in Federal Hill. The restaurant’s carefully crafted “parklet," an outdoor dining space with tables, awning, trellis and planters, was destroyed in a flash by a driver who plowed through the unattended space at 1:06 a.m. Nobody was hurt. The restaurant remains in business. And there’s no reason to believe cars hopping curbs during the pandemic is going to become a widespread occurrence. But add this cost to all the others. It’s one thing to be a company that can send its workers home with their laptops and video conferencing, it’s another to be in the business of serving food where the choices come down to carryout, delivery and — unless indoor, socially-distanced seating soon becomes more viable — going bankrupt.

As we’ve noted before, the list of food-serving establishments in the Baltimore area that have permanently closed these last seven months seems to grow with each week and that’s depressing. Alexander Brown Restaurant, the Milton Inn, City Cafe, Pen & Quill, Clyde’s of Columbia, and Chez Hugo, We would lament the closing of Dick’s Last Resort in the Inner Harbor but surely management’s public kiss-off of Baltimore precludes that option. Let’s just call it a resort that didn’t last. Behind each shuttering are dozens of livelihoods, millions of dollars in private investment, a loss of a neighborhood anchor and gathering spot and, in many cases, through little or no fault of their own.

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State government doesn’t have the resources to restore what’s been lost in this pandemic. Even the Rainy Day Fund is a limited resource, and much-needed federal aid seems increasingly unlikely given how a COVID-19 stimulus deal has been blocked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Nevertheless, some restaurants have gone to extraordinary lengths to adapt to their circumstances. The drive-through at almost any local Chick-fil-A, for example, is a model of efficiency that the Maryland Department of Labor ought to emulate for its problem-plagued system of dispensing unemployment insurance claims. Seriously. If the state’s vaccination plans go awry, the company ought to set aside its fried chicken sandwich trade to dispense shots. It would all be done in about 25 minutes.

We have no doubt that the restaurant trade will eventually bounce back. There are signs that it already has. Incredibly, there are even new restaurants setting up shop. According to a recent report by Yelp, recent restaurant openings nationwide are actually ahead of the pace from 2018, 2017 and 2016. It is the ultimate pandemic recipe: When you’re given lemons, you make lemonade. You find ways to feed your customers whether it means rebuilding a parklet or creating a reliable system for curbside service. Meanwhile, it’s up to the rest of us to personally support such efforts where we can and for our communities to invest in creative stop-gap solutions whether they involve closing a main thoroughfare like Charles Street for a day to draw customers, advertising “restaurant weeks” or to help pay for patio heaters. Given that restaurants account for more than a quarter-million jobs in this state (an estimated 9% of total employment), it’s a smart long-term investment.

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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