Dining at a Distance

Pandemic means outdoor dining Chesapeake style 

With every week of the coronavirus pandemic comes a new lesson in safe business operations, social navigation and cautious, yet optimistic, behavior. We’ve begun a new chapter in the 2020 crisis as restaurants offer some hope for a restless region. 

On Friday, May 29, at 5pm, the neon glow of open signs lit up, the welcome mats were laid out and patio tables were dusted off as restaurants, bars, breweries, wineries and cafes served sit-down meals to diners for the first time in months. 

Governor Larry Hogan announced last week that outdoor dining is permitted now as long as businesses—and patrons—abide by certain regulations. While Hogan again gave jurisdictions the decision-making power in implementation, he did outline specific best practices in this phase of his Roadmap to Recovery. 

Restaurants must follow state guidelines including distancing between tables, table seating limits, paper or sanitized menus, employee training and staff screenings before they return to work. 

In Calvert County, outdoor service means high contact surfaces are disinfected after each use, face coverings are worn by staff interacting with the public and each other. Restrooms are open for dine-in locations. Restaurants must distance tables a minimum of nine feet apart, with a limit of six people per table. Large crowds and gatherings are to be discouraged where customers enter or exit the seating areas. 

For those Calvert County businesses that don’t normally have outdoor dining areas or plan to use temporary tents, plans must be submitted to the Office of Inspections and Permits. 

In Anne Arundel County a temporary use order allows food and beverage service outdoors without a permit application. All establishments that already have permitted outdoor seating areas may use them in accordance with the state guidance. On June 3, the City of Annapolis began the implementation of Recovery Districts and Recovery Zones. 

Bay Weekly talked to Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley as the city was poised to launch its outdoor dining—an opportunity a lot of locals were happy to take advantage of this week. 

Mayor Buckley, a member of the business community himself, positioned Annapolis at the leading edge of preparing to reopen retail businesses and restaurants. As we interviewed him at the top of Main Street, business owners spotted the mayor and wanted to say hello. 

“I’m a small business owner. And so I understand the struggles of small business and how important it is to be a partner and not be part of the problem,” the mayor tells us. 

Mayor Buckley says he’s done all he can to help keep the lights on. He and the Annapolis Small Business Recovery Task Force have been at the forefront of pushing the city to the next phase of reopening following coronavirus shutdowns.  

“The restaurants are not going to open to the same capacity internally and they’re going to have to have expanded outdoor seating…That means reclaiming sidewalks, reclaiming your own parking lots, maybe taking a parking spot outside of your business.” 

Dining al fresco in Annapolis is reminiscent of Dinner Under the Stars, a summertime initiative in which the first block of West Street is shut own to traffic and restaurants move tables outside on Wednesday nights. Mayor Buckley was one of the original planners of that program, and it fits well with the current distancing guidelines. 

“We’ll do a signature socially-distanced Dining Under the Stars and that means that we take all of the concentration of people that usually go to West street for Dining Under the Stars and we spread them throughout the city. So there is a version of Dining Under the Stars on Fourth Street in Eastport. There is a version of it on South Forest Drive. There is a version of it in West Annapolis,” the mayor explains. 

He says the city’s distancing rules are coordinated with County Executive Pittman. 

“Every decision we make we do together,” Buckley says. “We’ll be planning these recovery zones jointly. I plan on being here on the first day we do this with Steuart Pittman and his wife to have a socially-distanced gathering and set an example on how you’re supposed to do it.” 

The mayor says there are layers of protection, like employee temperature checks and hand-washing stations. Signs are up on parking meters to remind people of the basics: wear a face mask, practice physical distancing, and wash your hands. 

“Each one of the businesses in these zones has guidelines on how to operate under a COVID structure,” says the mayor. 

Businesses know they can serve alcohol but signboards are up reminding visitors there are no open alcohol containers. Along Dock Street this Memorial Day weekend, visitors were out relaxing with a cold one. We asked the mayor about enforcement at City Dock. 

“I’m not going to say people didn’t abuse it.  I’m saying to them please help us and don’t flaunt it,” he says. “We have a policy with our police department to tell people to make sure you remind people there’s no open containers.  But the reality is people are out and they came out because they could pour a drink for themselves at home, they could make food for themselves at home—they want to be out.  So that’s the balancing act we had to do in this city.  We have to de-escalate, give friendly reminders to people.” 

As for the businesses hit hard by pandemic restrictions, Buckley tells us some won’t recover. He says taking the next steps is a delicate balancing act between health and safety and protecting people’s livelihoods. 

“People have a lot of anxiety. So you need to do it gradually and you need to do it with best practices,” he tells us. 

While summer on the Bay may not look the same as in years past, diners in Chesapeake Country can breathe a little easier as they enjoy dining al fresco—at a safe distance.