Anne Arundel Dining is Back On
By Cheryl Costello, Meg Walburn Viviano & Brenda Wintrode
About as unpredictable as the weather in Maryland is the situation with restaurants in Anne Arundel County.
As a rally in support of the service industry was just getting started at Sullivan’s Cove in Severna Park, exciting news came in Wednesday afternoon. “I just got word that an e-mail went out saying we can be open at 25% inside,” announced Christine Richardson, president of the Pasadena Business Association, to the gathering crowd.
Just hours before a controversial four-week executive order banning both indoor and outdoor dining was set to take effect in Anne Arundel County, County Executive Steuart Pittman revived outdoor dining, allowing county restaurants to serve diners in tents and outdoor spaces, “provided that no more than 50% of tent sides are down and all COVID social distancing and safety protocols are followed.”
Then a temporary restraining order was approved by Circuit Court Judge William Mulford, keeping restaurants open for both indoor and outdoor dining at current capacity at least until Dec. 28.
The sudden changes came after restaurant owners and supporters called out Pittman’s ban on outdoor dining for going too far. A coalition of four restaurant owners, representing Smashing Grapes and Blackwall Hitch and Heroes Pub in Annapolis, La Posta Pizza and Adam’s Taphouse and Grille in Severna Park, requested an injunction Tuesday (reportedly backed by the Maryland Restaurant Association) to halt the executive order before it went into effect. An emergency hearing was held Wednesday afternoon.
Pittman had announced the initial, across-the-board dining restriction in an Dec. 10 online press conference, along with new restrictions on sports, retail, and religious gatherings. At the time, he said, “Our contact tracing—and contact tracing all across the world—have shown that these are facilities where people can’t wear masks, and the virus is being spread at higher rates (there) than (at) retail and any other business.”
The county had pointed to data finding the percentage of COVID-19 cases contracted within two weeks of visiting indoor and outdoor dining facilities was larger than positive cases after visiting a retail establishment.
“I understand that a really tough decision had to be made to flatten the curve,” said Deena Bradbury, reacting to the initial ban. She and her husband, Duncan, own both the Annapolis and Crofton locations of Grump’s Cafe. Like other restaurateurs, Bradbury has spent thousands of dollars on tents, tables and heat lamps to serve outdoor diners. Bradbury worried that many restaurants “wouldn’t make it past” the sweeping restrictions when they were announced.
Area restaurants were scrambling earlier this week to take down the expensive outdoor tents many had purchased or rented to accommodate diners. “We had a 40×80 foot tent originally, with no side up, says Eric Leatherman, co-owner of Sullivan’s Cove. “And that tent alone was $6,000 a month.”
One local operator of four county restaurants called the planned restrictions unfair and “over the top and excessive.” Anthony Clarke, who with business partner, Michael Galway, operates Galway Bay in downtown Annapolis, Killarney House in Davidsonville, Pirate’s Cove in Galesville and Brian Boru in Severna Park, said the ban would have stripped restaurants of the hard-won business they earned under the previous capacity restrictions.
“It puts us back weeks to try and reestablish a normality,” Clarke said. He says his restaurants strictly enforce mask wearing, social distancing and handwashing and have been disinfecting menus and surfaces to keep their customers safe. “We have perfected this business model,” Clarke said.
It was a frightening scenario for restaurant workers who say the repeated shutdowns this year has put them deep in debt. Averie Roach, a line cook Sullivan’s says he is now $7,000 to $10,000 in debt. Being out of work hits hard, he says, affecting “my car note, my car insurance, rent, medical bills, electricity.”
Supporters at Sullivan’s Wednesday afternoon felt like the service industry was being unfairly targeted and left without a voice in the county’s policy.
“It’s one thing to talk and do a lot of talking and sit behind the computer and type what people think,” says Joey Cota. “It’s another thing to show up and show support.”
Some see the county’s proposed restrictions as being disparate. “It seems terribly unfair that a lot of the big stores, the Wal-Marts and the Targets can all stay open,” says Mark Jascewski.
Glen Burnie restaurant owner Bill Chalmers questioned why other venues considered high-risk by the Maryland Department of Health, like fitness centers, casinos and retail shops, were allowed to remain open, functioning at 25 percent capacity.
“I’ve worked hard to create a safe environment for our customers and our employees,” said Chalmers, who owns The Grill at Quarterfield Station. He says that none of his employees have tested positive for COVID-19 during the pandemic. With more restrictions, Chalmers said, “We’re gonna get crushed.”
Before the court ruled against him, Pittman had rolled back his plan on outdoor dining, allowing 50% capacity. But some restaurant owners felt restoring outdoor dining wouldn’t go far enough—indoor dining was needed. Sean Martin, co-owner of Sullivan’s Cove in Severna Park, says, “It’s really a non-starter for us…While it’s a nice effort, nobody is coming out here. It’s the middle of winter out here. It’s crazy.”
“The back and forth is too much right now,” says Donald Kelly, co-owner of 206 Restaurant Group, which owns and operates five restaurants and is building a sixth, JB’s Bar and Grill in Severna Park.
“What’s frustrating is you drive over the county line to Howard County or to other municipalities and they’re at 50% capacity,” says Kelly. “So, what do they know that we don’t know?”
In a statement, Pittman said, “We are disappointed in Judge Mulford’s ruling granting a temporary restraining order of our COVID restrictions on in person dining. We believe the science from public health experts is clear and it shows that taking actions to limit situations where people gather without masks will prevent the spread of this virus and ultimately save lives.”
The county executive had previously cited hospitalization metrics as the driving force behind the restrictions on restaurants. “Hospitalization projections and the impact of our actions on those numbers are the primary drivers of our policies, but we must also do everything in our power to assist the county residents who have suffered most throughout this pandemic—our low wage workers.”
On Dec. 10 Anne Arundel’s public health officer, Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman, said the county’s case rate was 47 per 100,000 people “and climbing.” The rate increased slightly last weekend. State hospitalizations reached 1,762 people last week, also a record high since the beginning of the pandemic. Both Anne Arundel Medical Center’s and Baltimore Washington Medical Center’s intensive care unit and acute care bed occupancies are above the 70% target capacity.
As for the other restrictions included in the executive order, the county executive has issued further clarification regarding sports practices, bingo halls, and indoor ice rinks and roller rinks. The list of restrictions, below, last until Jan. 13 at 8 a.m. To read the county’s most updated restaurant restrictions, visit www.aacounty.org/coronavirus/road-to-recovery/.
- Personal Services Establishments (hair stylist, nail salons, barbers) – decreased to 25% of that Establishment’s Maximum Occupancy.
- Religious Facility – decreased to 33% of that Religious Facility’s Maximum Occupancy. A Religious Facility may hold outdoor services for Christmas, Hanukkah or other recognized religious holidays with a gathering limit of no more than 250 persons, provided the Facility requires strict adherence to the Mandatory Health and Safety Protocols.
- Retail Establishment – decreased to 25% capacity or for any Retail Establishment without a posted Maximum Occupancy, 150 square feet of public space per occupant.
- Fellowship Addiction Recovery – decreased to 25% capacity or 50 persons, whichever is less.
- Food distribution sites (food pantries, etc.) that serve or donate food to people in need at no cost may continue to operate subject to Mandatory Health and Safety Protocols.
- Foodservice Establishments located in food courts in indoor shopping malls – restricted to carryout, delivery or curbside service only.
- Social Clubs including American Legion posts, VFW posts, and Elks Clubs, restricted to 25% capacity and no food or beverages service.
- Indoor social gatherings of more than 10 people remain prohibited. Outdoor social gatherings of more than 25 people remain prohibited.
- “Social gatherings” does not include activities, facilities or venues that have a specific capacity limit or are ordered closed under this Local Executive Order No. 39.
- “Social gatherings” includes family gatherings, parties, cookouts, parades, festivals, conventions, fundraisers, flea markets, yard sales, and other gatherings that are not associated with operating or patronizing a business that sells merchandise from a location with a posted Maximum Occupancy.
- All organized sports and sports practices in Anne Arundel County, including private school sports, are suspended.
- Private gyms and religious facilities with gyms or activity or play spaces may not allow those spaces to be used for sports, sports practices, or group fitness classes. Fitness Centers (as defined in the Governor’s Executive Order No. 20-11-17-01) may not allow sports or sports practices but may conduct classes or group fitness activities provided said activities are held in a space that provides at least 150 square feet per participant and the total number of persons permitted does not exceed 25% of its Maximum Occupancy. All staff and customers shall wear face coverings at all times and meet the Mandatory Health and Safety Protocols.
- Gaming Facilities (casinos) are restricted to 25% capacity and no alcohol or food service except for carryout, delivery or curbside service.
- Bowling alleys are restricted to 25% capacity and no alcohol or food service.
- Roller rinks and indoor ice rinks are restricted to no more than 10 persons on the ice or on the rink at any one time, and no more than 10 additional persons who are non-employees may be in the facility at any one time.
- Electronic bingo (no live call) is permitted, provided it is held in a space that provides at least 150 square feet per occupant, and provided the total number of persons permitted in any such facility at any one time shall not exceed 25% of that facility’s Maximum Occupancy.
- Indoor Theaters are closed.
- Indoor or outdoor venues for live performances are closed.
- All Outdoor Sporting Venues, including professional, semi-professional, amateur, recreational, collegiate, high school and motor sports venues, are closed, except that professional or collegiate sports at an Outdoor Sporting Venue may be conducted provided spectators are not permitted.
- Adult Entertainment venues are closed.
- Cigar and hookah lounges are closed but may sell retail products.
- Local annual license fees for Foodservice Establishments are waived and deemed paid for calendar year 2021.
When the county announced the revised executive order, Pittman also unveiled a new assistance program to expand the debit card distribution program managed by Anne Arundel County Workforce Development. Known as the Restaurant Workers Humanitarian Relief Fund, the new program would use $2 million dollars of supplemental funding.
Pittman also said he will introduce legislation to limit third-party delivery services from price gouging restaurants.
While restoring limited on-site dining eases the hardships of struggling restaurants, take-out is still likely to be key to the businesses’ survival. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies take-out and curbside pickup as the lowest-risk food service method. Restaurants, for their part, will continue to be inventive.
Chalmers says he will deliver almost anywhere and even ship food, and his menu now offers family-sized take-out options.
“We did it before, and we’ll do it again,” said Chalmers, who hopes the community will continue to support local restaurants as they are able.
A hearing on the executive order is scheduled for December 28.