Restaurateurs say Montgomery reopening helpful, but eager to have more restrictions lifted

Restaurants say Montgomery reopening helpful, but eager to have more restrictions lifted

First week in phase one allowed outdoor dining, with restrictions

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Restaurant owners, such as Alessandro Ferro of Pizzeria Da Marco in Bethesda, said they hope the county's second reopening phase includes limited indoor seating.

By Briana Adhikusuma

Bob Brooksbank walked up to a table of customers to chat with them outside The Barking Dog, his Bethesda restaurant, on Saturday evening. Nearly every outdoor table was full, thanks to warm weather and no rain.

It was the first weekend of business of Montgomery County’s first phase of reopening, which started on June 1. Under the initial phase, Montgomery County restaurants may serve customers in person outdoors, retail stores may provide curbside service, and hair salons and barber shops may provide appointment-only services.

Brooksbank is not alone in wondering when the county will move ahead to other phases, giving restaurants like his a chance to regain more of the business they lost since March, when coronavirus struck the county.

At a media briefing on Wednesday, County Executive Marc Elrich declined to set a date of when a second phase of reopening would begin. He said the County Council was given drafts of plans for second and third phases of reopening for feedback.

He did not immediately return a request for comment on Monday afternoon.

Prince George’s County officials have said they expect to potentially enter a second phase of reopening on June 15.

As of Monday, the county continued to report that seven of its 10 reopening benchmarks have been met. On Wednesday, four additional benchmarks were met for a total of six. By Saturday, those increased to seven.

Maryland as a whole moved into phase two on Friday, but Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have held back to wait on more improvement.

Brooksbank said he was happy to see people coming back out to support the restaurants again. But he questioned why the majority of Maryland has moved faster with reopening than Montgomery County, he said.

“It seems a little unfair that we’re being held back more than everyone else in the state. … We’re lucky a lot of the places are not open,” he said, gesturing in the direction of other streets with restaurants.

The restaurant opened outdoor seating on Monday, but Brooksbank said Saturday was the first day that there was a good crowd. It’s still not enough to keep the business going, he said.

“We’re still concerned,” he said. “What happens when it rains?”

A large part of the restaurant’s revenue comes from hosting up to 10 events a month during the spring and summer, but most of those have been canceled. The restaurant also lost revenue when March Madness and St. Patrick’s Day events were wiped out in March.

Raquel Zavala, owner of Casa Oaxaca in Bethesda, said people consistently came to eat outdoors at the restaurant all week. She opened her outdoor dining space on Monday.

“Thank God we’ve been busy,” she said. “It has helped a lot.”

Zavala said the restaurant is closely following county guidelines for reopening, including checking employee temperatures before shifts and requiring them to wear masks and regularly clean surfaces.

The restaurant also offered the choice of using disposable dishes and utensils, but no customers have requested them so far.

Zavala said she had to furlough 15 employees in March because of lost revenue from being closed. All of them are back now.

Although the restaurant did carryout orders for the last few months, Zavala said food delivery apps can charge up to 25% on the cost of the order.

“We weren’t making any money after factoring in to-go containers and the fees,” she said. “April was tough. May, I had a little bit of faith.”

John Kim, manager of Hanaro in Bethesda, said the restaurant wouldn’t open for outdoor dining until this week.

“We just wanted to gauge how everyone handled phase one,” he said.

Kay Sussain, general manager of Normandie Farm Restaurant in Potomac, said on Friday that outdoor dining opened on June 1 at the restaurant, but the restaurant only had one customer dine at the restaurant the entire week.

“Most of [the customers] don’t want to come out,” he said. “Some are excited to come out, but again, it’s outside — [not] if it’s bad weather, it’s too hot or it’s a storm.”

Jaimie Mertz, owner and manager of Red Bandana Bakery in Bethesda, opened only two outdoor tables starting June 1 . If phase two includes indoor dining and happens soon, she said she wouldn’t allow it in the bakery until more time has passed.

“It’s going to take me a while to feel comfortable for people to come in and actually eat because I’m worried about my own health,” she said on Friday.

She had to furlough a handful of employees in March and has brought back two. But others are afraid to come back, causing Mertz to consider rehiring for positions.

Alessandro Ferro, co-owner of Pizzeria Da Marco in Bethesda, said that although outdoor dining has helped since June 1, he didn’t expect for there to be much of a change in revenue until the restaurant could open at partial capacity for indoor dining.

With distance requirements for tables on a small outdoor patio, only five tables can be used at one time.

But Ferro said the restaurant has survived the last few months because of support through carryout orders from the community. As soon as the county announced on May 28 that restaurants would be allowed to open outdoor seating four days later, Ferro said many people began calling to make reservations for the first week.

In early March, he was concerned that the restaurant would have to close for good.

“The first two weeks [of being closed by state orders] was tough. I feel a bit more positive and optimistic [now]. I don’t want to get too confident,” he said.

The pandemic caused Ferro and his partners to remake their business.

“You have to reinvent yourself. Your customer service is through the phone instead of at the table,” he said. “Now we’re a mix of the two. I’m a little nervous. It’s like opening a new restaurant.”

Ferro said he hopes phase two of reopening in the county will include at least 25% capacity for indoor dining.

“It would definitely help. At this point, people are so anxious to go out,” he said. “Because vacations are canceled, many people will be staying here.”

Although the restaurant did well with carryout orders, Ferro said he had one complaint.

“I’m not a fan of seeing my food in boxes.”

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.

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