MarylandReporter.com spoke with Restaurant Association of Maryland President and CEO Marshall Weston on Friday. The interview comes a day after Gov. Larry Hogan announced the lifting of an order he issued in November that requires the state’s bars and restaurants to close by 10 p.m.
Starting Monday, February 1 the curfew will be lifted. Marshall discussed that development along with other pressing issues that are affecting the restaurant industry such as capacity restrictions.
MarylandReporter.com: What is your reaction to the decision to lift the curfew and is it enough to help an industry that has taken such a drastic hit during the pandemic?
Weston: It’s certainly a good first step. However, restaurants are really going to need a lot more in the coming weeks in order to be able to come out of this pandemic in good shape.
It is an important first step because most people were finding that you weren’t able to go into a restaurant after 8:30 p.m. The typical dining experience takes about 90 minutes. So most people realized this and were not going out to dinner come 8:00 or 8:30 p.m. when historically many people do like to eat dinner late in the evening or maybe they are not able to eat sooner than that.
But now that we can seat diners up until 9:00 or 10:00 this is going to help the business tremendously and it will probably bring a whole new wave of customers in. It will hopefully incentivize people to dine in person a little bit more often. And the employees are going to be helped out because there is going to be an increase in work hours for them and for servers and bartenders. This is certainly the first step that we were asking for after the holiday surge, which was to go back to the regular business hours.
MarylandReporter.com: What other actions need to be taken to help restaurants?
Weston: There are certainly other restrictions that make it difficult for restaurants to survive. When you look at the maximum of six people per table that’s certainly something that we would like to see lifted in the near future. Because when it’s gone you kind of realize how many parties of 8 or 10 like to come in. And those parties generally spend a little bit more money.
And they tend to tip the server a little better. So everybody benefits from increasing the table capacity. And we would like to see that in the near future. And we still have other restrictions in terms of the six-foot distancing of space between tables.
We are hopeful that as the numbers continue to trend down as more people become vaccinated that we can start to modify that a little bit so that we can get to the point where we have dining rooms that can accommodate more than 50% capacity. Because many restaurants are even struggling to get to that 50% with the six-foot distancing between tables.
MarylandReporter.com: The state has provided tens of millions of dollars to help support the restaurant industry. But is that enough? Do restaurants need further stimulus funds?
Weston: The reality is that every dollar helps restaurants stay afloat. But even with these millions of dollars that the state has been able to provide and with local jurisdictions offering and the federal government with a new round of PPP that would be made available to restaurants and other businesses-it’s not enough.
It is just a stop-gap to ensure that a restaurant could pay some expenses, pay a few employees, and just hang on. What restaurants really need to be able to survive is to get back to the point where people are dining out regularly again, where we don’t have reduced capacities, and we can start filing up restaurants and getting back to the days when restaurants were bustling and lively. These government funds are help but they do not ensure that restaurants are going to survive.
MarylandReporter.com: Moving forward, what advice would you give to the state’s policymakers regarding decisions related to restrictions on restaurants?
Weston: I think at this point when we look back over the past 11 months there’s no data that shows that restaurants are not safe. There’s no real data that shows that restaurants are a cause of COVID spread.
And we’ve seen this across the country and even here in the state and in the region. Some of the jurisdictions that have the most restrictive policies against restaurants-their COVID metrics are almost no different from the jurisdictions that don’t have the same type of restrictions. Restaurants continue to be a safe and regulated space.
And as we move forward and the metrics continue to improve and as vaccinations become commonplace among the population-we would like to see the easing of these restrictions because restaurants are really built on volume and capacity. We really need to keep that in mind. And it would really be a shame for the restaurants that were able to somehow survive through the past 10 or 11 months to be able to not make it to the end. So we really need to keep these things in mind when we are thinking about policies.