In light of the pandemic, Jesse Sandlin chose not to offer indoor dining at Sally O’s. Instead, she invested more than $10,000 in creating a welcoming outdoor environment at her Highlandtown restaurant, which opened this year. There were twinkle lights, a pergola, propane heaters, and even a duct system to distribute warm air to tables.
“It really stays quite warm,” said the chef and restaurant owner.
But on Wednesday, she and restaurant owners across Baltimore who have spent substantial money and energy crafting comfortable outdoor seating areas in hopes of keeping their businesses alive, faced new coronavirus restrictions from Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott that will shut down all indoor and outdoor dining in the city starting Friday at 5 p.m.
“Why outdoor dining? It’s so much safer,” said Sandlin. She thinks that some restaurants abused the outdoor seating guidelines, setting up large, enclosed tents that basically amounted to indoor spaces.
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Other restaurant operators shared frustration at seeing their hefty investments in outdoor setups rendered useless. A Facebook post from Paulie Gee’s in Hampden said: “To close our outdoor set-ups, with no financial aid, is going to be a crushing blow.”
While public health experts have said al fresco dining poses a substantially lower risk than eating indoors, Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said the current surge of the virus required more drastic action.
“Unfortunately, with the volume of new cases that we are seeing … activities such as eating, drinking and smoking in close proximity to others should not continue,” she said at a Thursday news conference.
Here’s a Maryland county-by-county list of new coronavirus restrictions »
Tony Foreman said that Charleston, Petit Louis and other restaurants owned by his Foreman Wolf group will pivot yet again as carryout-only operations. “We have zero choice,” he said. “We’ll keep as many people employed as we can.”
But Foreman said he agreed with the priorities of Scott, who announced the restrictions on his first full day in office.
“We have not behaved as well as we could have behaved as a population,” Foreman said.
A few owners said they saw the restrictions coming. In recent weeks, some Baltimore restaurants had preemptively decided to shut down on-premise dining. Canton’s Gunther & Co. opted to close “until we can get closer to the vaccines on the horizon and we can welcome more of you safely back into our dining room,” according to a Facebook post.
“We knew it was just a matter of time,” Gunther & Co. owner Nancy Trice said in an interview. “We watched the COVID dashboard; things kept going up.”
The ZIP code where the restaurant is located — 21224 — has yet again become a hot spot for COVID-19 cases. The restaurant is continuing to offer once-a-week dinner pickups for the holidays.
“I’m making latkes as we speak,” Trice said.
Graphics: Here are the known cases of coronavirus in Maryland »
Like Gunther & Co., Aldo’s Ristorante Italiano shut down early.
“I’ve never felt worse about being right,” said restaurant owner Sergio Vitale, who has pivoted his Little Italy restaurant to prepare gourmet gift boxes during the holidays.
He has advocated for more federal aid to restaurant owners struggling under the weight of pandemic closures, and believes that a wave of bankruptcies and permanent shut downs is soon to come.
“We’re going to be homeless while the politicians are all bickering,” he said.
Sami Tabet, right, owner of Byblos on Light Street, serves lunch dine-in customers Roger Richardson, from left, Joe Woods, hidden, and Chris Kalwa. Tabet and other restaurant owners react to new Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott’s order to prohibit indoor and outdoor dining to combat the spread of coronavirus.
Sami Tabet, right, owner of Byblos on Light Street, serves lunch dine-in customers Roger Richardson, from left, Joe Woods, hidden, and Chris Kalwa. Tabet and other restaurant owners react to new Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott’s order to prohibit indoor and outdoor dining to combat the spread of coronavirus. (Kenneth K. Lam)
At Byblos, a cozy Light Street restaurant owned by Sami and Hala Tabet, carryout orders have failed to make up for the drop in dine-in customers. This year, they began using third-party delivery apps for the first time — but those companies often charge hefty commissions on each order, making it difficult to earn anything like a profit.
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“It’s not enough to support our families,” said Sami Tabet.
Unable to access government grants or funds, the couple has turned to private loans to stay afloat.
With the news of the ban on indoor and outdoor dining, he found himself searching for reasons to stay upbeat.
“It’s hard to stay positive when this thing is going on.”
Wednesday, Sandlin’s mind began racing with plan C’s, D’s, E’s for her Highlandtown restaurant. She might deputize servers to do deliveries, or begin offering Blue Apron-style meal kits. “I really hope people order carryout food — and tip on it.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.