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Baltimore restaurants to reopen to indoor dining with limited capacity

Interior and Exteriors of the Gertrudes Restaurant at the BMA. MF-D 1/16/07.

The dining room of Gertrudes Restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Restaurants in Baltimore will be allowed to reopen for indoor dining at 25% capacity starting at 5 p.m. Friday, August 7, 2020. (The Daily Record / file photo)

Restaurants in Baltimore will once again be allowed to reopen for indoor dining under a new executive order signed by Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young.

The order, which takes effect Friday at 5 p.m., will allow for indoor dining capped at 25% capacity. The order requires social distancing and wearing of facial coverings when not eating or drinking. The new rules come two weeks after Young ordered an end to indoor dining in an attempt to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

“Today’s action is about protecting the holistic welfare of our city,” Young said in a statement. “I have chosen to act to protect the financial wellbeing of our city and our residents.

Young ordered restaurants and bars to end indoor dining as he and Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa expressed concern about the growing transmission of the virus in the city.

“This reopening does not mean that we are in the clear as it relates to the pandemic but rather that I want to support our residents facing extreme financial hardships as a result of working in the restaurant and service industry,” Young said. “While I will be allowing very limited capacity for indoor dining, I remain concerned about community spread which is why I have reduced the allowable capacity for most gatherings.”

Young banned indoor dining two weeks ago. The new order continues an atmosphere of uncertainty for owners who were closed to indoor dining from mid-March until mid-June.

Gov. Larry Hogan lifted the ban on indoor dining and other activities in June. Under his order, bars and restaurants, which in many cases had moved to outdoor seating, could now resume indoor service with tables spread 6 feet apart, no more than six people per table and a limit of 50% of indoor capacity. 

Casinos, retailers, entertainment facilities and malls were also limited to 50% capacity, though Hogan said his order allowed flexibility for local officials to impose tougher restrictions.

Five local health officers including Dzirasa, in a July 20 email, expressed concern about “the recent increase in daily cases across the state and impact of the virus over the past week” and asked then Deputy Health Secretary Fran Phillips for a more statewide approach.

“Our jurisdictions are prepared to act quickly to address these concerns but would prefer for the state to take action to create a unified, standardized approach to address this resurgence of cases,” the health officers wrote in their email.

Hogan and state health officials rejected any new statewide clampdowns. 

Two weeks ago, Young and Dzirasa expressed concern about the positivity rate of more than 6% — a rate that exceeds the CDC recommendations of 5%. The rate was also higher than the 4.56% reported by the state at the same time.

The city now has a positivity rate of 5.44%, according to the state Department of Health. 

Maryland reported a new low statewide positivity rate of 4.03% as of Aug. 5, the most recent day available.

Last week, Hogan expressed concern that bars and restaurants were being unfairly scapegoated.

Hogan, during a July 29 news conference, said contact data shows bars and restaurants are currently less of a risk, but he added that local governments need to do more to crack down on those not following the law.

Of those who recently tested positive, 44% reported attending a family gathering. Another 23% reported attending a house party, while 21% reported attending an “outdoor activity,” according to limited data released by the governor.

Tracing found additional commonalities among those testing positive: 54% worked outside their homes, 39% had been shopping, 23% had dined outdoors and another 23% said they had dined indoors.

The state’s contact tracing also revealed that 23% of those who tested positive worked in health care, while another 23% were office workers with no direct contact with the public. Workers who have direct contact with the public, including retail employees, made up 13% of those who tested positive; restaurant workers comprised 12%.

But state officials cautioned that the data does not point to where a person contracted the virus but instead showed common activities shared by those who later tested positive for the virus. 

Indoor and outdoor gatherings will now be limited to 25 people.

“We recognize that there are different levels of risk in activity, indoors being riskier than outdoors and attendance at large gatherings increasing one’s risk of potential coronavirus exposure,” Dzirasa said in a statement. “I’d like to caution Baltimore City residents to remain vigilant, keep 6 feet of distance when around others, wear your face covering over your nose and mouth, avoid being in indoor settings around others, not in your household, for prolonged periods of time and avoid large crowds.”

Other indoor activities including religious gatherings, stores and malls, casinos and indoor recreation facilities will be capped at 25% of capacity or 25 people, whichever is lower, according to the order.

Those new orders also take effect on Friday at 5 p.m.

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