James J. King has fond memories of opening days of the Maryland General Assembly.
As a former Republican legislator from Anne Arundel County, he says it was always a festive time to greet friends and colleagues who often gathered for lunch or dinner.
Now, as co-owner of several Annapolis restaurants, King was counting on lucrative business during the 90-day session. But the lingering COVID-19 pandemic has created a new hardship beyond the 25% capacity limit on indoor dining in Anne Arundel County. Because health experts are still discouraging large gatherings outside of one’s immediate family, that is expected to severely curtail indoor dining.
King, founder and CEO of Titan Hospitality Group, which operates Blackwall Hitch, Smashing Grapes Kitchen and Wine Bar and other restaurants, says, “For decades, we have depended upon the legislature coming back into session, not only the legislators, but the media, the lobbyists, folks coming down to testify.”
Downtown Annapolis restaurants frequently hosted large legislative receptions, sponsored by lobbyists during the session, but those events have been canceled.
“To lose that business now is just one more blow to the industry,” said King. He says his restaurants strictly adhere to six feet of social distancing as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But King adds, “If the data and the science and conventional wisdom is that if you’re able to keep people six feet apart and socially distanced, then what difference does it make if one restaurant is at 38% capacity and another is at 42% capacity and another is at 55% capacity so long as people are six feet apart?”
Rusty Romo, longtime owner of Harry Browne’s on State Circle in Annapolis, says his venerable restaurant hosted nearly 40 receptions during the abbreviated 2020 legislative session. But he says so far this year, no receptions are scheduled.
Romo, who has owned Harry Browne’s for 41 years, says he also expects fewer diners for lunch and dinner during the 2021 session. He says his restaurant still offers fine dining but recently tweaked its menu to offer pizzas and hamburgers “to appeal to the masses.”
Romo says given COVID-19 restrictions and the volatile political climate, ”they (legislators) may take a low key approach, and just come in, do what they have to do and get the heck out of here.”
Maryland House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R), who represents Anne Arundel County, says ,“My heart bleeds for people in the restaurant industry especially the locally-owned places that are really struggling to survive right now.” Kipke says he expects legislators will be ordering more food to go or have meals delivered to their offices during the session.
Titan Hospitality Group filed suit against Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) in December, challenging his executive order to shut down all indoor dining in the county for four weeks. Circuit Judge William Mulford II temporarily suspended the ban until formal arguments could be heard in court. Before the judge issued a decision, Pittman issued a revised order which allowed restaurants to operate at 25% capacity indoors and 50% capacity outdoors. As a result, the lawsuit was dismissed.
But King says the 25% capacity limit for indoor dining is still very restrictive for many restaurants. He says he discussed those concerns during a face-to-face meeting Wednesday with the county executive. King says the county executive “seemed open to furthering the discussion as things progress and we monitor the daily metrics. I think we need to educate elected officials to show them that we can do this safely. We can protect the life and the safety of citizens of the county while at the same time keeping our employees and patrons safe.”
A spokesman for Pittman says the county executive and King “had a constructive conversation about slowing the spread of the virus and rebuilding the restaurant industry.” But the spokesman adds “Given the current rate and trajectory of COVID cases and hospitalizations, we don’t expect to expand indoor dining in the immediate future. But during the General Assembly session, we are encouraging legislators and staff to support our local restaurants by ordering carryout.”
John Rydell has covered state politics for more than 30 years with WBFF-TV and Maryland Public Television. He can be reached at [email protected]