(May 22, 2020) As Memorial Day weekend begins, resort officials, business leaders, the Worcester County Commissioners and state representatives are urging Gov. Larry Hogan to allow outdoor dining for restaurants and bars.
“Without the ability to move forward as requested, I fear the Town of Ocean City will be placed in an untenable situation and unnecessary health and safety risks will arise,” Mayor Rick Meehan said in a letter to the governor.
Meehan’s letter also asks that outdoor seating, if not already in existence, to be permitted on premises, but at 50 percent capacity and per local zoning office approval.
Last Wednesday, Hogan announced the commencement of phase one of his recovery plan, which lifted the stay-at-home order and reopened certain businesses and personal services effective last Friday.
Restaurants and bars, were not reopened, however, and remain conducting carryout services only.
Following Hogan’s announcement, Meehan announced last Thursday during a special council session that his short-term rental ban would be repealed as well, effective that afternoon.
This sudden freedom, coupled with great weather, led to a not-so-soft opening last weekend, as people flocked to the resort.
City Manager Doug Miller said during Monday’s council meeting that the city had been “caught off guard,” and some Boardwalk vendors expressed being overwhelmed by the unanticipated stream of people.
Photos and videos of the Boardwalk that day show people crowded together.
Susan Jones, Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, told Ocean City Today that the Boardwalk crowding problem had been perpetuated because no other amusements were open, leaving the beach and Boardwalk as the only place to go.
Last weekend was an eye-opener for resort officials, who anticipate and even greater number of people for Memorial Day weekend — the official start date of the resort’s summer season.
Though, a bleak weather forecast for this weekend may act as crowd control.
The council discussed the issue on Monday, and some members expressed their desire to see more than just outdoor seating reopen.
“I’m in a position where I would like our governor to do the 50 percent occupancy indoors where [it] impacts all of our restaurants that do not have outdoor [seating], of course all of their staff are going to have to maintain PPE regulations and sanitation,” Councilman Mark Paddack said. “I get the steps, I get [going in increments], but it’s time to move on.”
“Instead of asking for specific variants … I think we should ask the governor to leave it [the decision to reopen restaurants and bars] up to counties or municipalities,” Councilman Matt James said. “I think what we have going on here and what we have to offer is much different than some of the other counties in the state. I think we probably have much more outdoor dining available than any other county in the state.”
Meehan said during a conversation with the governor’s Chief of Staff Matthew Clark last Friday, Clark had indicated that the governor had no intentions of straying from his reopening timeline.
As of Wednesday, Hogan has been silent on the issue.
“Being realistic, and I’ve said this before and I want to say it again, the governor is sticking to his plan, and we opened phase one on May 15, according to his plan,” Councilman Tony DeLuca said.
DeLuca said if key metrics, hospitalization rates, ICU stays and deaths, continued to plateau or decline for 14 days, phase two would likely occur on May 29.
During Monday’s meeting, DeLuca asked once again for more guidance on reopening pools.
The question had been brought up during last Thursday’s special council session.
“Semi-public pools are able to open, recreational pools are still closed. Social distancing should be practice at all times when in the water,” County Health Officer Becky Jones told Ocean City Today in a statement.
Most condos and hotels are classified as semi-public, but any facility that charges a fee or has water play equipment would fall under the recreational classification.
Pools are still subject to the governor’s executive order limiting social gatherings of more than 10 people.
Ocean City Today also requested clarification on carryout regulations, as there has been confusion over what constituted as “off-premises” for Boardwalk restaurants.
“Ordering carry-out from a restaurant and sitting off-premises, such as a nearby public space, is allowed,” Jones said.