By Ryan Sullivan
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
Restaurants will be closed to all dining other than carryout and drive-through services and residents will not be permitted to hold indoor gatherings of more than 10 people under new coronavirus restrictions that will go into effect at 5 p.m. on Friday, Mayor Brandon M. Scott announced today.
In addition, Scott said religious facilities, retail stores, malls, all private and public outdoor activities, museums, zoos, fitness centers, casinos, and the aquarium will be capped at 25% of their maximum capacity.
The new rules are part of a broad set of restrictions Scott announced during a press conference this morning that will impact virtually all aspect of life in the city as the number of coronavirus cases in Baltimore and the state increases. The order marks the first major act of the new mayor, who was inaugurated only yesterday.
“When it comes to the wellbeing of our residents, I am not afraid to do the right thing over the popular one,” Scott said. “The health and safety of Baltimoreans is my top priority, and as I said yesterday, I will not waiver or hesitate to make decisions that save lives in Baltimore. Our decisions must be and will be guided by the science and our public health officials.”
Scott continued: “I am committing to you, the people of Baltimore, that I will be here every week to bring you the necessary information as we continue to battle this pandemic with the hope that you will make informed decisions for you and your family.”
The state reported 2,692 new coronavirus cases yesterday. Maryland’s testing positivity rate is now 7.74%, better than many states but still above the 5% threshold deemed relatively safe by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and far above the 2.5% to 3% positivity rate during the summer.
The Maryland Coronavirus dashboard reported today that Baltimore has had 26,897 coronavirus cases and 585 known COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic hit last winter and spring. Baltimore County has had 32,387 cases and 761 deaths. The city’s dashboard puts the total number of COVID-19 cases in Baltimore at 26,589, with 552 total deaths.
But those numbers do not reflect what has happened over the past month.
According to city data, Baltimore has averaged slightly more than 245 new cases each day over the past week, a 98% increase from four weeks ago. The city is also averaging 3.4 deaths a day over the past week, up 243% from mid-November, while the weekly positivity rate average now stands at 7.7%, or 85% higher than a month ago.
“COVID doesn’t get tired. COVID doesn’t take days off, and COVID doesn’t care how you want to go back to normal. It is actively looking to infect us all,” Scott said. “Baltimore, we are still in a pandemic. And to be quite honest, some of us aren’t acting like it.”
Scott also said that he would be meeting with Gov. Larry Hogan in the next couple of weeks to discuss the pandemic and other issues.
Scott’s decision to shut down indoor and outdoor dining at restaurants in Baltimore was met with criticism.
Jimmy’s Famous Seafood, a local seafood restaurant established in 1974, tweeted: “So you can’t dine at Jimmy’s, but you can go to the casino, and of course, shop at Walmart with 500 strangers. Got it.”
Damye Hahn, the daughter of the owners of Faidley’s Seafood in Lexington Market, said the mayor’s new rules “cuts us off at the knees.” She said the restaurant’s workers have worn masks, maintained six-foot distances and adhered to other safety precautions that have kept the staff safe and health.
She said the curbside pickup exception will not help her family’s restaurant because there are not enough people coming into the downtown area to keep businesses in the famous marketplace afloat.
“It’s killing us — it’s literally killing us,” Hahn said. “From the very beginning, the city made ridiculous decisions because Lexington Market is really the source of grocery for so many in this area.”
Hahn said that while her family restaurant was resilient, the business they do during the holiday season will be the difference between survival and going out of business.
“We were hoping for Christmas to be able to get through January and February,” Hahn said. “And then, here our new mayor cuts us off at the knees. I don’t know how we’re going to get through this without this holiday season. What he has done could be enough to put the nail in our coffin if it lasts for very long.”
Scott said he recognized the hardships restaurants would face, but he pointed out that the city has done everything it can to help local eateries and is not making the current decision lightly.
“We understand, and we know that our restaurant industry has been one of the hardest hit by this pandemic,” Scott said “This city has been proactive in finding ways to support our restaurant community. The city has awarded 235 grants totaling $2.8 million to restaurants, carryout establishments, bars, and taverns in the city.”
Religious leaders were also bracing for what the new rules mean for them. But some said they are already adapting to the coronavirus pandemic.
Christy Luis, the office manager and administrative assistant to pastors at the Zion Lutheran Church of the City of Baltimore, said in an email that the new restrictions will not affect the church because it closed service worships two weeks ago in anticipation of an increase in COVID cases.
“The congregation has definitely adapted,” Luis said, adding that the church is currently live-streaming its services. “Of course, they would prefer to be in church. However, everyone knows how important it is for the steps that we have taken and having to keep everyone safe.”
Under the new restrictions that will go into effect on Friday evening, all outdoor gatherings at public and private facilities will be limited to no more than 25 persons.
Sports gatherings and facilities controlled by the city’s recreations and parks department will be prohibited while indoor recreational establishments such as cigar and hookah bars and adult entertainment venues will be closed.
Scott said outdoor recreation establishments will be capped at 25% of their maximum capacity while theaters and outdoor entertainment venues will be closed.
Under the restrictions, personal service establishments will be capped at 25% of their maximum capacity. In addition, staff at these facilities must wear face coverings at all times and keep a log of all customers, staff, and anyone else who enters their shop.
Scott was joined at the press conference by Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, Police Commissioner Michael S. Harrison, and Fire Chief Niles R. Ford. Also in attendance was Dr. Thomas Inglesby, a professor with joint appointments at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Dzirasa said the city saw its highest number of new COVID cases over the past month since this pandemic began. If previous trends continue, Dzirasa said, the city expects December to be one of the deadliest since this pandemic began.
Dzirasa said bars and restaurants are high-risk settings because of close contact and people not wearing masks.
Last week, COVID was the number one cause of death in America, Inglesby added.