Restrictions Sought On Dining Bans

OCEAN CITY — Just days after an Anne Arundel County judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking the county executive’s ban on limited indoor and outdoor dining in that jurisdiction, the Restaurant Association of Maryland (RAM) filed for injunctions to halt similar executive orders in other jurisdictions around the state.

Locally, Worcester County and other jurisdictions are following Gov. Larry Hogan’s directives regarding restaurants and bars, including a 50% capacity, socially-distanced tables and a 10 p.m. closing time for example. However, a handful of jurisdiction on the other side of the Chesapeake have implemented far more stringent orders, including no indoor or outdoor dining, leaving restaurants and bars in those jurisdictions hoping to hang on during the pandemic with strictly a carryout or delivery business model.

Last Wednesday, an Anne Arundel County judge issued a temporary restraining order attempting to block County Executive Steuart Pittman’s executive order in that county banning indoor and outdoor dining in the face of growing COVID metrics. As a result, restaurants and bars in Anne Arundel got a stay of execution of sorts, at least until a hearing is held on the executive order, set for December 28.

On Friday, RAM, along with 100 local restaurants, announced it has filed for injunctions to halt similar executive orders in Baltimore City, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County. The request for injunctions were filed on the basis the county executives and the mayor of Baltimore do not have evidence that closing restaurants will have a positive impact on the spread of COVID-19, according to RAM President and CEO Marshall Weston.

“Without real evidence that restaurants are a source of COVID spread, these jurisdictions cannot shutter these businesses and ask tens of thousands of servers, bartenders and other restaurant employees to shoulder the burden of losing their jobs in the hopes of slowing the spread of this virus,” he said. “In-person dining allows for people to socialize in a safe and regulated space and avoid the temptation to host parties and gather in each other’s homes.”

Again, while local jurisdictions including Worcester County have not followed suit on similar bans on indoor and outdoor dining, the potential ruling on RAM’s filing for preliminary injunctions bears close attention. Local jurisdictions must, at the very least, follow the governor’s directives, but can make policies and issue orders that are more stringent.

Thus far, local jurisdictions have not shown any inclination to stray from the governor’s existing executive orders. Weston said last week the filing for preliminary injunctions in those jurisdictions hope to stop the bleeding for one of the state’s major economic drivers in the face of the pandemic.

“Here in Maryland, over 100,000 employees are still laid off or furloughed due to this pandemic and the business restrictions placed on our industry,” he said. “Restaurants are the backbone of every community and neighborhood and we cannot stand by and allow for this to happen.”

Again, the preliminary injunctions filed by RAM last Friday bear scrutiny because they could become a test cases if further restrictions are implemented locally or statewide. When asked about potential further restrictions recently, Hogan said the state was carefully watching the metrics, but more restrictions on restaurants and bars were not immediately in the offing. In fact, Hogan said the state’s contact tracing data indicated family gatherings were the largest generators of new cases and restaurants and bars were somewhere near fifth on the list.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.