BJ’s on the Water on 75th Street can only add two more tables with the new increase to 75 percent indoor dining capacity.

Rule change allowing more seats means little if other restrictions eat up room

(Sept. 25, 2020) Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s directive allowing restaurants to move up to 75 percent seating capacity is being hailed in some quarters as a major step forward for the covid-19-battered industry, but the Maryland Restaurant Association said this week that achieving that level of service can’t be done under current health department regulations.

Restaurants also continue to struggle to find enough workers to provide good service at the 50 percent level, thus making that 75 percent operational target an unattainable goal.

Hogan’s announcement last week reflects the slowing spread of covid-19 in Maryland and what might be viewed as a gradual return to normalcy. But remaining unchanged are Maryland Department of Health compliance regulations that maintain strict diner spacing requirements without acknowledging new diner safety protocols that might be just as effective.

Along with the increase in capacity, Hogan also declared Friday, Sept. 18 through Sunday, Sept. 27 as Maryland Restaurant Week to encourage business for restaurants. 

Local restaurants mostly agree with the restaurant association’s assessment that the increase in capacity looks good on paper, but doesn’t have much impact. Nori Sushi, at Gold Coast Mall on 115th Street, is already maxed out with 10 tables six feet apart inside. 

“We’re not fully able to add too many more tables and maintain the six feet apart, so we don’t know if we can handle the guidelines,” said co-owner Phillip Lambrinos. 

Judy Wilbur, director of sales and marketing for Dune’s Manor off 29th Street, said the Victorian Room would remain at 50 percent with tables six feet apart and mask requirements. 

Although they have added seating for Milton’s Deck, a new oceanfront veranda for outside dining, that will only last for so long as the weather turns cold. 

Billy Carder, co-owner of BJ’s on the Water on 75th Street, said that the increased capacity only helped a little. 

“We really only have added two tables because we still have to do the six-feet separation between tables and that’s all the square footage [we have],” Carder said.

Nancy Schwendeman, interim director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, agreed that the regulation change will not have a tremendous impact. 

“There are several restaurants that have the overall square footage to be able to increase to 75 percent and gain additional seating, but there are a large number of restaurants that are already maxed out because of the six-foot space requirement,” Schwendeman said. 

She said it would be more helpful to allow the restaurants to seat customers in booths that are back-to-back, but place a divider between them. Under the current safety requirements, tables and booths must be at least six feet apart.

Susan Jones, executive director of the Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, agreed that the increase in capacity is not realistic.

“With social distancing requirements, table spacing and not allowing Plexiglass barriers between inside booths, and no standing at the bar, most operators will still be below 50 percent of capacity when complying with state regulations, which most of are following,” Jones said. “The reality is when cold weather sets in, operators will feel a huge squeeze when they lose their outdoor space and are only able to use interiors with spacing requirements.” 

Jones also pointed out that, according to Hogan and the Maryland Department of Health, family gatherings have had a greater impact on the spread of coronavirus cases. 

“We have been saying for many months that restaurants have been unfairly targeted,” Jones said. 

Marshall Weston, president and CEO of the Maryland Restaurant Association, said in a statement that without changes to the safety guidelines, the increase in capacity does not make up for the loss of outdoor dining with winter coming. 

“Retail stores have been using Plexiglass barriers for months and even the Maryland State Department of Education’s recovery plan for returning students to the classroom includes the use of barriers,” Weston said. “CDC [Center for Disease and Control] guidelines also confirm that physical barriers are acceptable in food service operations – yet no explanation has been provided as to why barriers are not acceptable for the restaurants in Maryland.” 

Elizabeth covers Worcester County issues for Ocean City Today. In 2018, she graduated from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa with a bachelor of arts. After graduation, Elizabeth spent a year with Lutheran Volunteer Corps in Wilmington, Delaware.

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