Outdoor seating, once a boon for restaurants that had to close their indoor dining rooms due to the coronavirus pandemic, is now presenting its own challenges as the weather in Maryland gets cooler.
While some restaurants, like The Valley Inn in Lutherville-Timonium, have long used outdoor heaters to keep their patios open throughout much of the winter, others have been struggling to find solutions.
Vassos Yiannouris, the owner of Cypriana, a Mediterranean restaurant with a 30-year history in Baltimore, doesn’t see heaters as the right answer for his business. Back in the winter of 2002, at one of the restaurant’s former locations, he tried to set up heaters in the restaurant’s outdoor café space.
But those heaters, Yiannouris realized within the week, wouldn’t fight off the brisk Baltimore winter. “I grew up in the Mediterranean and we use heaters, and we use them on the West Coast, in a Mediterranean-style climate, to get the chill out of the air,” he said. “(But) they’re not going to battle the cold weather.”
Cypriana’s current location, which opened in 2017, has a patio behind the restaurant, but customers were reluctant to walk through the indoor dining room to get to it. Yiannouris ended up getting a permit from the city to set up 30 tables on the median across from the restaurant.
But that was hardly a perfect fix, either. Waitstaff had to cross West 39th Street to bring patrons their food, and, between hot days and rainy days, conditions were only good enough to use the space a handful of times over the summer.
Since the cold weather began to set in this month, Cypriana has been “closing on and off.” When frigid weather sets in, Yiannouris plans to pivot to solely indoor dining, which is currently at 50% capacity in Baltimore city and Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, and 75% in other Maryland counties.
Some other restaurant owners whom Yiannouris knows — those who own their own buildings — may even close their businesses altogether until the weather warms up and they can reopen outdoor seating.
Ineffectiveness is not the only problem with outdoor heaters. They’re also in very high demand, according to Marshall Weston, president and CEO of the Restaurant Association of Maryland. Because businesses across America began purchasing outdoor heaters months in advance, even those who can get their hands on one may not be able to purchase enough to be effective.
“Now that we’re into the last week of October, it has become increasingly clear that the weather is not going to cooperate for consistent outdoor dining,” Weston said. “Restaurants are scrambling to figure out what they can do to be able to accommodate customers in a way that’s going to be able to keep their businesses open.”
The only equitable solution that would benefit all restaurants, in Weston’s view, would be allowing indoor dining to return to full capacity with increased safety measures, such as implementing barriers between tables and installing higher-quality air filters.
Though Maryland restaurants remain at lowered indoor capacity levels for now, some jurisdictions have begun taking measures to help restaurants continue outdoor dining into the winter. Baltimore County launched the Small Business Restaurant Reimbursement Program, which will reimburse up to $15,000 to offset the cost of equipment purchased by restaurants to help them continue operating through the winter.
Baltimore city began a program four weeks ago that accelerates the approval process for outdoor heating permits from three months to three days, according to Councilman Eric Costello. Costello co-chairs Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s COVID-19 Small Business Task Force alongside Shelonda Stokes, president of the Downtown Partnership. The program also offsets fees associated with those permits.
As long as Baltimore city remains at 50% capacity, Costello said, “maximizing that outdoor space is critically important.” Costello did not know how many businesses had taken advantage of the program thus far, but noted that the number seems to be increasing as the weather gets cooler.
While outdoor heating has its flaws, some restaurants, like The Valley Inn, which had a large patio lined with heaters and a fireplace since before the pandemic, prove that the strategy can be successful.
“We’ve been really busy,” said Jeza Hopkins, the restaurant’s general manager. Creating a safe and comfortable dining environment where the inn’s customers can get away from the chaos of the pandemic is important to her; “even if it’s costly, it’s the service [that] we want to bring to our community,” she said.
In the past, The Valley Inn has stayed open until Jan. 1, though Hopkins said she is not yet certain whether they will stay open longer this season. After all, diners don’t seem reluctant to opt for indoor seating when the wait for the patio is too long.
Restaurant owners cannot be sure whether their customers will be willing to eat inside when outdoor dining options begin to dwindle. But, Weston said, customers are more likely to eat inside of establishments that show they are taking measures to keep clientele and employees safe.
“Restaurants want the opportunity … to put these measures in place, to demonstrate to their customers that they are doing what it takes to keep everyone safe,” Weston said. “Once people see for themselves, we think that customers will begin to return more regularly.”