OCEAN CITY – Gov. Larry Hogan this week eased some of the COVID-19 restrictions associated with stage one of his recovery plan for the state, giving the green light for limited outdoor dining with strict safety guidelines in place.
Two weeks ago, Hogan announced the implementation of stage one of his Maryland Strong: Roadmap to Recovery plan which included lifting the stay-at-home order and the limited reopening of retail stores and certain personal services, such as barber shops and salons and religious services, with strict capacity limitations. Conspicuously absent from stage one was any allowance for limited outdoor dining with capacity and distancing restrictions, a provision the resort’s hospitality community was clamoring for with the Memorial Day weekend quickly approaching.
On Wednesday, Hogan announced the data in certain key indicators including hospitalization rates, the number of Intensive Care Unit (ICU) cases and the number of coronavirus deaths in Maryland had continued to trend in the right direction to the point more restrictions would be eased. Hogan stopped short of implementing stage two of his recovery plan, opting instead for a sort of modified stage one.
Included in that next phase of stage one was reopening outdoor dining at restaurants and food service facilities with strict limitations on table distancing, the number of people allowed at individual tables and other safety measures including the continued use of masks and screening procedures for staff. Hogan’s announcement on Wednesday did not include any provisions for limited indoor dining at this point.
However, the governor allowed and even encouraged local jurisdictions to work with their hospitality partners to provide the flexibility to create outdoor dining areas outside their existing footprints on a limited basis. Those efforts are already underway in Ocean City and Worcester County.
When Hogan first introduced his roadmap to recovery in April, he said the data in certain key indicators would dictate the pace of reopening and at least verbally said those indicators would be reviewed in 14-day increments. On Wednesday, he said Maryland was ready to take the next small step in the recovery plan.
“After seeing a 14-day downward trend, I announced we could cautiously begin stage one,” he said. “Now, after another 14 days of trending in the right direction, Maryland is ready to complete stage one.”
Hogan reiterated his coronavirus task force continues to monitor the daily numbers in certain key indicators and that data will dictate the various phases of the state’s recovery plan.
“Our COVID-19 team is watching the data closely and if the trends continue, we can be in position to enter stage two of the recovery plan,” he said. “We all need to continue to follow the CDC guidelines. The fight against this virus is far from over. Lower risk does not mean no risk. Safer doesn’t mean completely safe.”
For those reasons, Hogan encouraged Marylanders to continue to follow the directives in place including social distancing and the wearing of masks, for example.
“It remains critical that we all continue physical distancing and wearing masks and following the directives,” he said. “Our long-term recovery can only be effective if everyone continues to take personal responsibility. We continue to make great progress, but COVID-19 is still a deadly threat.”
Hogan said the majority of Marylanders continue to follow the directives and guidelines closely, but there is certain segment of the population that do not.
“Unfortunately, some people are still not taking this seriously and putting others at risk,” he said. “It could cause another spike. The vast majority of citizens realize the inconveniences, but also realize these are the best tools we have.”
Hogan specifically singled out Ocean City after certain images of a crowded Boardwalk over Memorial Day weekend were circulated on regional and national media.
“The vast majority are really paying attention and they are being thoughtful and careful,” he said. “I was a little bit shocked to see some of the photographs and video of people on the Boardwalk in Ocean City and some of the crowds. It didn’t appear to be safe to me.”
Hogan said he has been in close contact with the town of Ocean City about some of the measures taken to encourage social distancing and the other directives.
“The mayor of Ocean City is trying to take some measures,” he said. “They put up signage and they had police officers up there encouraging people to keep their distance. I think they are going to take some additional steps to be more careful. You can’t control everyone’s individual behavior, but for the most part I think people were pretty good.”
Limited Outdoor Dining Reopened
One of the key elements of the governor’s announcement on Wednesday was the reopening of outdoor dining on a limited basis with many of the same restrictions in place. Under the governor’s latest order, restaurants as well as social clubs and service and fraternal organizations will be able to begin safely reopening outdoor dining following strict guidelines and public health requirements consistent with the CDC and the National Restaurant Association, for example.
Under those guidelines, food service operations must ensure patrons are appropriately distanced with tables at least six feet away from each other. No more than six people will be allowed at a single table, with the exception of members of the same household.
Restaurants are urged to use single-use paper menus or sanitize reusable menus between each seating. Tables and chairs must be sanitized between each customer seating. Restaurant operators must begin screening procedures for employees including daily temperature checks of all staff. Staff must continue to wear masks or face coverings when interacting with patrons or other employees.
Hogan suggested and even encouraged local jurisdictions to work with their business communities on flexible plans to create outdoor dining areas within their properties. For example, certain establishments that don’t currently have outdoor dining will be able to expand their footprints to create outdoor dining areas.
In some cases, that could mean outdoor tables in parking lots or other areas within the property. In some jurisdictions that could mean closing off streets to create outdoor dining plazas of sorts. Hogan on Wednesday urged local jurisdictions to work with their businesses and trade organizations to accomplish those goals where safe and practical.
“I’m strongly encouraging local leaders to work with businesses to allow them expand their footprints and allow for more outdoor dining,” he said. “I love the idea of closing streets and that is underway in certain areas of Baltimore City and Annapolis and other towns around the state.”
Locally, the town of Ocean City is working with the various review and approval agencies to make that possible for resort restaurants that don’t currently have outdoor dining areas. The multi-layer approach includes a one-stop, online approval process including the town’s zoning department, the fire marshal’s office, the county health department and the Board of License Commissioners. Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville is coordinating the streamlined approval process in conjunction with the other agencies.
“We know our restaurant community is anxious to reopen and we wanted to create an easy yet effective way for them to do so safely,” he said. “Any business or organization that wishes to expand beyond their existing site plan approval must complete the application online, receive approval from review agencies and follow the state and CDC guidelines.”
The allied agencies have developed a temporary outdoor seating permit application through which an establishment can gain approval to expand or alter their premises to create opportunities for outdoor dining. The collaborative effort was underway in advance of Hogan’s announcement on Wednesday and by Thursday morning the applications were already flooding in, according to Neville.
Neville said the goal is for a quick turnaround on the application process and some could be processed as the weekend arrives. It’s important to note expanding an establishment’s seating area would be limited to privately-owned property only and would not include the use of public sidewalks or right-of-way.
After an applicant receives its online approval, it can begin operating under its temporary approval. However, the applicant will be contacted by each of the participating agencies letting them know when a physical inspection of their establishment will take place.
In other words, it is possible to get a quick turnaround on the online application, but one or more of the participating agencies will be doing a physical inspection to ensure compliance.
Mayor Rick Meehan praised the allied agencies participating in the approval process for temporary outdoor dining and the businesses themselves for being out in front of the solution.
“This has been a team effort and is a great example of the innovation and collaboration of our community,” he said. “Safety is always our first priority in Ocean City. With appropriate social distancing practices, adherence to the safety measures and the commitment and cooperation of our restaurant operators, who have always shown the initiative to be leaders in their industry, the town of Ocean City believes that a safe reopening plan for outdoor dining can be implemented and enhance the safety of visitors throughout our community.”
Other Restrictions Eased
Hogan also outdoor youth sports may resume following the appropriate CDC guidelines including limited, low-contact outdoor practices focused on individual skill building, limited group sizes, limited touching of shared equipment and physical distancing while not actively engaged in play.
In addition, outdoor activities at youth day camps may resume under similar guidelines. For example, the capacity would be limited to no more than 10 individuals in a group, daily COVID-19 symptom checks would be required for participants and staff and physical distancing and the wearing of masks would be required.
Most of the Ocean City Recreation and Parks Department’s camps and programs have been on hold or postponed since the crisis began, but Wednesday’s announcement allows the department to begin planning for some return to normalcy.
“We are working to try and make this summer as normal as possible and out staff has been assessing all of the opportunities and potential modifications to do so,” said Recreation and Parks Director Susan Petito on Wednesday. “It’s too early to give any specifics, but we are optimistic that we will be able to offer some modified forms of camps and other programming this summer.”