2020 | Coronavirus

UPDATED: County says it shut down two Silver Spring businesses for not using social distancing

North Bethesda, Gaithersburg restaurants cited

The Society Restaurant & Lounge was one of two downtown Silver Spring restaurants that were forced to closed over the weekend after being cited by Montgomery County's health department for not complying with social distancing restrictions

Logo from The Society Restaurant & Lounge Facebook page

This story was updated at 11:22 p.m. on July 14, 2020 to add comments from the co-owner of The Block. It was also updated at 10:03 a.m. on July 15, 2020 to add comments from an employee at The Republic Garden.

Montgomery County’s health department said Tuesday that two Silver Spring restaurants were shut down for not complying with social distancing restrictions.

The Society Restaurant & Lounge and The Republic Garden, both on Georgia Avenue in the downtown area, were forced to close this past weekend after not complying with social distancing restrictions outlined in a county executive order, according to a Department of Health and Human Services press release issued on Tuesday.

The order states:

  • Customers must maintain at least six feet of distancing while waiting to be seated
  • Customers must maintain distancing of at least six feet when seated at a bar
  • Everyone must wear face coverings
  • The business must post signage with these requirements
  • Anyone who disobeys the order has the right to be refused service and might face criminal penalties.

A state executive order from Gov. Larry Hogan includes additional restrictions, such as not allowing more than six people to sit at a table and closing every other booth.

No one from The Society Restaurant & Lounge could be reached for comment on Tuesday afternoon.

Grace Nwaeze, a representative of The Republic Garden, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat Wednesday morning that she doesn’t agree with the county’s assessment, but has to “respect their decision.”

“… and that is because we have strict measures in place to encourage social distancing and other requirements and almost every single customer had a mask on during their visit as we strictly enforce it,” she wrote. “Their report indicated that we had 80 people in the building with 90 percent of that on the outside patio. We thought it is much safer to be on the outside than on the inside.”

Nwaeze added that her restaurant has taken steps to ensure safety during the pandemic, such as temperature checks for customers coming inside and having a “no mask, no entry” policy. She wrote that there is plexiglass in the middle of the bar to ensure that customers stay six feet apart. 

Nwaeze wrote that the restaurant is working with the county to create a plan explaining how The Republic Garden will ensure social distancing. 

“Our reopening depends on how soon they do the plan review and come out for inspection,” she wrote.

Mary Anderson, a county Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman, told Bethesda Beat in an interview that the two restaurants were shut down after county health inspectors and business ambassadors visited them multiple times. Normally, county code inspectors visit businesses to make sure they are complying with COVID-19 restrictions.

“For a closure to happen, it’s a graduated thing,” Anderson said, explaining that the restaurants were previously warned that they were violating the order.

Anderson said both restaurants must submit written plans to the county detailing how they will correct the violations.

The press release stated that inspectors also fined The Block in North Bethesda’s Pike & Rose area $500 for not maintaining social distancing.

Anderson said inspectors visited the business on July 8 following a complaint. After inspectors educated the business on what it needed to do to comply with the order, Anderson said, the health department received more complaints.

Inspectors returned to The Block on Saturday and issued the fine, she said.

Arturo Mei, a co-owner of The Block, wrote in a text message to Bethesda Beat Tuesday evening that the owners tried to maintain social distancing by keeping tables six feet apart, but were “not prepared for the amount of business” their bar would get. 

Mei wrote that many customers are residents in nearby residential buildings in Pike & Rose who socialize with each other at The Block.

“Even though we are below our 50% capacity, guests/neighbors in the neighborhood [naturally] go and say hi to their neighbors that live in the same building. That was our violation,” he wrote.

Mei wrote that The Block will further limit the number of customers inside and will let customers order from their tables using GoTab, a contactless ordering and payment application.

“We never meant to cause any harm, truly. As a restaurant owner this is a problem we have never faced before,” he wrote.

The county also announced Tuesday that the restaurant Ay! Jalisco at 8401 Snouffer School Road near Gaithersburg was issued a written warning because employees weren’t wearing masks.

No one from Ay! Jalisco could be reached for comment on Tuesday. The restaurant is the second in the Gaithersburg area in the past week to get a county warning for having employees who didn’t wear masks.

Last week, the owner of The Grille at Flower Hill decided to close the restaurant, with the goal of selling it to someone else, after he refused to require his employees to wear masks. The business received a warning from county inspectors.

The owner took to social media to strenuously object to the idea of requiring asks and said he would not force his employees to do it, challenging the legitimacy of county and state executive orders.

The county also shut down a hookah lounge and the Palisades Lounge Bar in Silver Spring last week. Additionally, a hookah lounge in Rockville was informed that customers couldn’t smoke inside, but it stayed open for retail and to-go sales.

The county’s most recent announcement about the enforcement of its executive order came the same day Hogan wrote to local officials asking them to increase enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions in bars and restaurants. In the letter, Hogan reminded officials that at least 12 states have reclosed bars and restaurants due to spikes in COVID-19 cases.

“You have the responsibility to enforce these laws,” the letter says. “Violators should be warned, fined, have actions taken regarding their licenses, or closed if necessary. Local health departments, local liquor boards and inspectors, and local law enforcement agencies must work together to ensure public health is protected.”

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com