Lifting Capacity Limits Confirms Progress

Lifting Capacity Limits Confirms Progress

This week’s announcement rolling back capacity limits and other restrictions is more about symbolism than pragmatism. Loosening the restrictions represents progress, but it comes with complications as far as a realistic impact on improving life within the hospitality industry.

As he has been prone to do over the last year, Gov. Larry Hogan dropped a surprise Tuesday on the state when he rolled back capacity restrictions on most public places, including restaurants and retail stores, effective Friday, March 12. There were no indications this was coming, especially in front of what is essentially a holiday weekend for the local restaurant and bar scene.

The timing of this move can not be ignored for a couple reasons. This week’s random announcement came almost one year ago to the day after Maryland effectively shut down businesses. After announcing some minor restrictions a few days before, the day before St. Patrick’s Day in 2020 the governor made bars and restaurants carry-out only to prevent crowds of revelers. It was a massive move full of untold financial consequences, all in the name of health and welfare amid a rapidly contagious and growing virus.

Flip the calendar ahead one year and he has given the green light for establishments to move forward. However, the practical realities are he really did nothing for most businesses this week because the lifting of the 50% capacity rule comes with an obligation to maintain the six-foot physical distancing rule. It’s a mixed message and seems largely semantics and symbolic.

On the local front, there was little reason to celebrate for most operators. Immediate concerns were how to adequately inform customers not much has changed in the face of news spreading that seemingly should be good news. For instance, people still cannot come into a bar and stand to watch a basketball game. While customers can now sit 10 to a table, they are still supposed to be from the same household. It’s basically much of the same for now.

The distancing requirement has always been the issue for restaurants specifically. Even if a 100-seat restaurant does not have to adhere to half capacity rules, the limits remain in place essentially because of the six feet of distance in between tables. It’s a square footage formula problem for many small and moderate sized businesses.

There was good news in the legislation, as buffets are now allowed, post-travel quarantine and testing requirements are done and retail stores do not need to monitor their foot traffic to the degree they did last week. However, there is little to celebrate among the business community this week., as this grand announcement has little impact on how they can operate.

This reality is why many have righty questioned Hogan’s motives with the surprise announcement. Cynics may say he wants to keep up with other states who are opening up more and easing government mandates. We think there is some truth to that due to the odd timing of the move on the eve of a heavy weekend.

No matter the cynicism behind the motives, this week’s decision to roll back restrictions is likely a sign of what’s to come. In that regard, it should be embraced as good news. There will surely be more restrictions lifted in the weeks ahead so long as metrics trend as they have and eventually the physical distancing requirement of six feet will likely be scaled back to four feet for public places and schools.

Until then, businesses need to embrace the rollbacks this week as a positive trend toward fully reopening in the near future.