By Meg Walburn Viviano
Wednesday morning, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman issued an executive order allowing county restaurants to remain open for indoor dining at 25 percent capacity. The order puts an end to the county’s legal fight with a group of restaurant owners, which started when Pittman issued a previous executive order to suspend all indoor and outdoor dining for four weeks.
That onsite dining ban was set to take effect December 16, but Titan Hospitality Group challenged the decision, saying it unfairly singled out restaurants. Anne Arundel County Judge William C. Mulford sided with the restaurant owners, issuing a temporary restraining order just hours before the dining ban was set to begin. That restraining order was in effect until December 28. The court hearing stretched for two days, until Pittman signed the executive order to maintain indoor dining at current capacity.
It’s good news for restaurant owners, such as Donna Duran, owner, Broadneck Grill in Edgewater and Cape. St. Claire.
“I am happy with the decision to stay open with 25% capacity indoor dining. This decision enables us to keep all employees on the payroll with no layoffs. Without catering, having shorter hours of operation and less capacity, our sales are down dramatically from last year and this … gives us a chance to stay in the game,” says Duran.
“There are no words for the intense feeling of relief of being able to continue indoor dining with the cold weather now here,” says Crystal Byrd, general manager at Blue Rooster Cafe.
The decision also means more workers keeping their jobs into the new year. “It’s a minor victory but a victory none the less,” says Byrd. “I only hope the powers that be begin to understand how seriously this industry takes the guidelines and how capable we are of safely serving our community, for us, for them and the overall well being of the economy.”
Under Executive Order #40, restaurants must follow safety protocols and collect information for contact tracing. They may hold outdoor dining as long as tents have at least half of their sides up at all times.
In a statement announcing the new executive order, Pittman stands by the initial decision he made in mid-December but admits it would have brought negative impacts.
“I believe we demonstrated to the court that the county’s decision was based on our strong desire to save lives and protect public health and was neither arbitrary nor capricious. However, the prospect of a sudden and disruptive closure of indoor dining prompted me to evaluate the best course of action at this time.”
Pittman says the metrics have changed enough that restaurants can remain open, citing progress in the county’s COVID-19 numbers.
“Case rates have dropped slightly and hospitalization projections have been adjusted downward. We still expect a challenging surge in COVID hospitalizations and a post-holiday case rate increase, but the improved forecast allows us to maintain our current level of restrictions,” he says, crediting residents for “holding our numbers down” in the last two weeks.
The county is promoting its carryout online portal as a way to support local restaurants (aacounty.org/carryout).
In addition to extending indoor dining, the new executive order permits other venues that serve food, like social clubs, bowling alleys, and mall food courts, to also resume indoor dining at 25 percent.
Finally, the order also seeks to prevent price gouging from third-party food delivery services by limiting their fees to 15 percent of the purchase price of an online food order.
Restaurants stress that they will still be vigilant with cleaning and following the current guidelines. “We are implementing all safety practices to lower any risk of COVID infection for the safety of my employees and customers,” says Duran. “Let’s hope for a healthy, prosperous and better 2021.”