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Maryland Restaurant Association offers plan for safely reopening | COMMENTARY

Ken Mills stands in front of Towson Hot Bagels after picking up his coffee and lunch order from the makeshift pick-up window at the restaurant in Towson on Wednesday, April 8.
Ken Mills stands in front of Towson Hot Bagels after picking up his coffee and lunch order from the makeshift pick-up window at the restaurant in Towson on Wednesday, April 8. (Brian Krista/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The devastation to our state due to COVID-19 has been astonishing, but thanks to our front line heroes and our leaders we are starting to reopen safely and regain the normalcy we all miss so much while saving our economy and getting people back to work.

Unfortunately, there is one industry that, until Wednesday, had been conspicuously left out of any plans, and ironically it is the industry hardest hit by the pandemic: restaurants, caterers, bars and the food service industry at large. The announcement by the governor to allow restaurants to reopen for outdoor dining is welcome news. But many Maryland restaurants and their employees continue to struggle, and further action is needed to ensure these important businesses survive and continue to provide jobs for many of our fellow citizens.

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Since this all began, more than 150,000 Marylanders who work in the restaurant and food service industry have been laid off or furloughed, and $1.4 billion in sales have been lost. Even more shocking is the fact that 45%, nearly half, of all restaurants in Maryland remain closed with 25% expected to close permanently. These are startling numbers that will only increase if things don’t change quickly.

“Restaurants Are Ready” is a campaign that we launched last week simply to let the public and government officials know that our industry has a well thought out plan to open safely and we are ready and eager to do it.

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Our plan consists of the following:

  • All employees will complete a health screening prior to their shift.
  • Hand sanitizer will be available upon entry and exit for customers and employees, or hand washing stations facilities will be readily available.
  • Employees interacting with customers will be required to wear face coverings or use other protective equipment, such as plexiglass barriers, in keeping with public health guidelines.
  • Physical distancing of at least 6 feet between tables for customers shall be maintained or there will be physical barriers between booths or tables.
  • Operations that have self-serve buffets will continue to utilize protective barriers and shall provide and require all customers to use hand sanitizer, deli paper, or protective gloves before serving themselves and touching utensils. Signage of this customer requirement shall also be posted at each buffet table or station. Directional signage, ropes or stanchions will be required to manage the flow of customers through the buffet lines that ensure proper physical distancing. A dedicated employee(s) will be assigned to ensure compliance and monitor, manage and control the flow of customers.
  • The maximum number of customers at any one table setting shall be 10 people.
  • While waiting to be seated, appropriate physical distancing guidelines will be maintained. If space does not allow for appropriate physical distancing, customers will be asked to wait in their cars or other off-premise area.
  • Child play areas located inside and outside of restaurants shall remain closed.
  • Bar seating located within establishments that serve food may be used provided that customers are seated and comply with the appropriate physical distancing guideline of at least 6 feet. Standing in a bar area will not be permitted. A maximum of four customers that have a common relationship may sit together at the bar, while adhering to the physical distancing guideline between other customers.

Finally, the governor’s important first step to reopen outdoor dining, and his encouragement of local jurisdictions to work with restaurants to close streets to allow expansion of this outdoor dining, is certainly appreciated. We encourage the governor to continue to promote this expansion to other existing outdoor areas, such as parking lots or other usable space, without the current restrictions from zoning boards, health departments, liquor boards and other agencies. A permissible expansion of seating will allow businesses to offer more space for proper physical distancing among guests and the opportunity to operate at a capacity that will promote opening rather than remaining closed.

The restaurants of Maryland are asking Gov. Hogan to announce his timeline to reopen for dine-in customers as soon as possible. The other states in our region have all announced their reopen dates for restaurants, and our industry needs the same.

Marshall Weston Jr. (mweston@marylandrestaurants.com) is the president and CEO of the Restaurant Association of Maryland.

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