Giovanna Blatterman arrives at Café Gia, the restaurant she started with her daughter, by 5 a.m. every morning and drinks a cup of coffee before starting work.
From her building on Eastern Avenue she watches construction work nearby continuing. Workers huddled together, talking and not wearing masks. Even the so-called “squeegee kids,” she said, approach cars, wash windows and make a few bucks.
Meanwhile her restaurant remains closed, beyond curbside pickup. Blatterman’s family is burning through savings covering bills. Making matters worse, she said, is that this is the time of year that brings in the revenue the eatery survives on.
She can’t help but feel restaurants are being held to a different standard.
“Business is almost like a human being. You have to nurture it or it dies,” Blatterman said.
Her frustration spilled into public Tuesday when she called radio station WBAL’s “C4 Show.” Blatterman aired her grievances, and blamed Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who had just done an interview on the program.
“I spoke from my heart,” Blatterman said in an interview later that morning.
Sergio Vitale, co-owner and chef at Little Italy’s Aldo’s Restorante Italiano, joined Blatterman on the program in excoriating Young’s treatment of restaurants closed by the pandemic.
He bitterly complained that the mayor wasn’t willing to consider allowing restaurateurs to close streets and serve customers at tables outside. It’s a concept Vitale described as “curbside plus,” or an “outdoor food court.”
“I don’t know what the restaurant community did to earn so much contempt from this administration in this moment of need. All we want to do is have the right to earn a living in this city, just like the squeegee boys he doesn’t do anything about,” Vitale told WBAL.
Young’s longtime aide Lester Davis, however, said the restaurateurs’ anger is misplaced. It’s not a city order restricting their operations, Davis pointed out, it’s the state restricting any and all table service.
“Our focus is on trying to save lives. We’re not out of the woods yet. This is not a game … you can bounce back from anything but death,” Davis said, noting Maryland recorded its first pediatric death from COVID-19 earlier in the day.
The Little Italy restaurant owners said they intend to be safe and that by serving customers outside, on well-spaced tables on closed streets, they feel customers are safe. At the same time, such a plan would provide restaurants a boost in business. At least 50% of the restaurants in Little Italy, Vitale and Blatterman said, will fail in a matter of weeks unless eateries are allowed to expand services.
“Give us a little lifeline,” Blatterman said.
Whether that can actually be safely achieved, however, is questionable.
Former Baltimore Health Commissioner Leana Wen, spoke to Greater Baltimore Committee members Tuesday, and said she felt efforts to reopen states and cities for businesses are coming too soon.
Reopening at this point, she said, defeats the gains from stay-at-home-orders, which were put in place to buy time for the states and nation to acquire the materials needed to test, trace and isolate infected people to prevent large breakouts of the disease.
One of the major obstacles to allowing on-street service is how to deal with bathrooms. Wen said public bathrooms serve as a breeding ground for the virus.
To serve food in Baltimore where customer can sit eateries must provide access to restrooms. That means customers are sharing a fairly enclosed space that has shown propensity to collect the virus. The inability to disinfect portable toilets after every use negates the potential for using those facilities as a solution.
The restaurant owners, however, said their grievance with Young is more than the fact he won’t allow outside table service. It’s also about how he’s responded to their requests for help, they said. The only response restaurant owners said they’ve received from Young is threats to close businesses.
On Monday evening the mayor issued a statement that he “heard a few rumors” about businesses planning to reopen in Baltimore in defiance of directives from the governor and his office. Vitale said the mayor’s statement stemmed from a private conversation with Young on Monday.
He accused Young of threatening to close eateries for good by calling the health department and revoking their permits to serve. During the interview with WBAL Vitale admitted he told the mayor restaurants would serve outside, and invite news media to see if can be successfully done, in a bid to pressure the city to reopen more fully.
Young’s cavalier response to businesses paying thousands of dollars in taxes, Blatterman said, infuriated her.
“You don’t need to shut us down. Coronavirus is doing a really good job already,” Blatterman said.