The door leading back to normal opened a little wider in much of Maryland this weekend as gyms, restaurants, bars, houses of worship and retail businesses began operating under Gov. Larry Hogan’s order removing capacity limits.
Even though limits were lifted, however, many establishments were proceeding with caution. And because social distancing guidelines and mask requirements are still in place, the removal of the capacity limits won’t make much difference in some venues, particularly at smaller retail stores and restaurants.
At 9:30 a.m. Saturday, customers at Chick & Ruth’s Delly in Annapolis got out of their seats to join staffers in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The morning ritual has been going on for decades at the cozy Main Street mainstay which, before the pandemic, had a capacity of 85 patrons and often squeezed in a few more.
Now every other table is closed – and the new rules won’t allow for much of a change, said manager Karli Kilmer. Still, she thinks Hogan’s order is a step in the right direction.
“Hopefully with the protections in place and more people getting vaccines, people will feel more comfortable,” Kilmer said. “As more people get vaccinated we’ll be able to open up more in summer. And in Annapolis that’s when things really come to life.”
Chris Dyer, who had breakfast at Chick & Ruth’s Saturday with his wife and son, said the removal of capacity limits is long overdue, and he wants the social distancing and masking guidelines to go, too.
“We think all the rules are absolutely ridiculous and it’s all politicized,” said Dyer. “It should be up to the person to decide if they’re not comfortable. It should be an individual choice, not a government choice.”
Hogan, a Republican, announced the change Tuesday, citing the “rapidly rising” pace of vaccinations and the “steadily improving” health metrics.
But even as the news signaled official optimism about the state’s battle with the coronavirus, some public health experts said the decision was premature given coronavirus case rates in the state.
Local officials, including those in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, were caught off guard by Hogan’s announcement and opted to keep some restrictions in place, saying it was too soon to end capacity limits altogether. Some business owners and customers feel the same way.
Ben Epstein, owner of the Board and Brew on Baltimore Avenue in College Park said the announcement about capacity is “kind of silly.” Prince George’s officials raised the capacity limit from 25 percent to 50 percent for all businesses – but for Epstein’s game-themed bar and cafe, doubling the capacity really means adding just one or two more tables, because of the six foot rule. Takeout is still where most of his money is coming from. Adding indoor dining did help, he said. But with most University of Maryland students off campus, “there’s just less people here, period,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll get back to normal until September.”
Chris Westerman, a software engineer from Greenbelt, goes to the Board and Brew every Saturday to get some time away from his quarantine companion, a parrot named Pesto. Westerman worries that Hogan’s announcement will give people the perception the pandemic is ending. Driving past the University of Maryland campus, he says he already sees students crowding the bars.
“Anybody that’s not abiding by the covid restrictions is going to see [the announcement] as opening the floodgates to riskier behavior,” Westerman said.
At Looney’s Pub in College Park, Quentin Yeoman and his friends were also skeptical that opening up further was the right call, with cases higher in Prince George’s than anywhere else in the state.
“Just wanting something to be over as opposed to it actually being over are two different things,” Yeoman said.
They got to brunch right when the bar opened to avoid a crowd, “trying to be safe but still trying to enjoy life.”
Yeoman had already received one vaccine dose.
“It makes me a little safer, but I don’t think it’s an excuse to go wild,” he said.
Looney’s general manager Jake Isennock was a little more optimistic about a return to something like normal as people get vaccinated. About half his staff already had.
But, like Epstein, he said the additional capacity did not really make any difference for his bar. Groups larger than six might now be able to sit together, but technically, he noted, in Prince George’s people are only supposed to share a table with other members of a household.
“People are confused,” he said. “You have to read the fine lines.”
Sean Phillips, 22, works and socializes at Terrapin’s Turf in College Park, and says he wishes the state would go further.
The young people in that area are unlikely to have serious complications from the coronavirus, he argued, and are instead feeling the pain of the lockdowns. Both of the friends he was drinking White Claws and mimosas with Saturday had lost their bartending gigs. They knew two people who had died by suicide. He was annoyed that the county had chosen to be more cautious than the state.
Gyms in the region were also trying to assess how many more customers they could allow into their buildings. At an Orange Theory in College Park, staffers estimated they could add a couple more people to each class. A smaller kickboxing gym was waiting for more guidance specific to small fitness centers. But a sprawling LA Fitness in Hyattsville will be able to double its patrons.
Still, on Saturday, physical trainer Ashley Morrow was not seeing the impact. “It’s more empty than usual!” he groused. (The nice weather may have been responsible.)
For many in the restaurant business, full reopening still feels like it’s a while away.
“I don’t see that happening any time before fall,” said Brennan Furrow, general manager of the popular Iron Rooster restaurant in Annapolis. “We’re obviously hopeful it’s right around the corner, but I think social distancing and masks are going to be around for a while.”
Hans Riede walked with a friend outside of the Iron Rooster Saturday morning after putting his name on the 25-minute waiting list for a table. While the lifting of restrictions wasn’t creating more room at the restaurant, he said he was encouraged by the governor’s order and was optimistic that change could be coming soon.
“It feels great to see so many people out,” Riede said. “And it’s nice to think that there’s maybe an end to this on the horizon.”