2020 | Courts

UPDATED: Hearing underway for restaurants’ attempt to overturn Montgomery County ban on indoor dining

Clarksburg restaurateur files separate request for temporary restraining order

This story was updated at 1:20 p.m. Dec. 23, 2020, to add details from the court proceedings.

A hearing was underway Wednesday as dozens of Montgomery County restaurateurs seek to overturn Montgomery County’s executive order barring indoor dining.

Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge James Bonifant is hearing the case, and is expected to issue a ruling on Wednesday.

On Dec. 15, the County Council passed the indoor dining ban in response to the rising number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the county. The order allows restaurants to serve through takeout, delivery and outdoor dining only. Heated tents are permitted if one side is left open.

The Restaurant Association of Maryland announced on Friday that it is seeking injunctions and temporary restraining orders in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, as well as Baltimore City for their bans on indoor dining. Baltimore City has also banned outdoor dining.

About 100 plaintiffs are involved in the three lawsuits, the restaurant association has said.

Bonifant also is reviewing a Clarksburg restaurateur’s separate request for a temporary restraining order against the county. Clarksburg Tavern on Frederick Road in Clarksburg filed its request on Tuesday.

Bonifant is hearing both cases together.

Witnesses from area restaurants testified during the morning portion of the hearing Wednesday. They included Lynn Martins, who owns Seibel’s Restaurant and Uptown Pub in Burtonsville, and Robert Gilroy from Stained Glass Pub in Aspen Hill.

Additionally, Restaurant Association of Maryland President Marshall Weston testified.

The witnesses answered questions about how the pandemic has affected their businesses, and whether they would have to close or lay off additional employees after the holidays.

The court recessed at 12:30 p.m., and additional restaurateurs were scheduled to testify when the hearing resumes at 1:30 p.m.

Additionally, Dr. Earl Stoddard, the county’s director of the Office of Emergency Management & Homeland Security, and County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles were scheduled to testify on behalf of the county.

The lawsuits came after an Anne Arundel County judge granted a temporary restraining order against the indoor dining ban there until Dec. 28.

Plaintiffs have argued in the Montgomery County lawsuit that restaurants are “not a significant source” of COVID-19 spread, and that the financial implications of an extended shutdown could be catastrophic for their industry.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with the state and county health departments, have argued that there is a direct link between indoor service at restaurants and the spread of the virus.

During a virtual media briefing on Tuesday, Stoddard said in response to a reporter’s question about restaurants that it’s “nationally accepted” that dining together contributes to community spread.

“A fair bit of this is common sense,” he said. “If you’re indoors, it’s riskier. If you’re with people that aren’t part of your immediate, traditional household, it’s riskier. If you’re doing anything for an extended period of time, it’s riskier. And if you’re doing anything without a face covering, it’s riskier.”

Stoddard added that it is clear that the county’s easing and reimposing of COVID-19 restrictions have had an impact on the spread of the virus.

“If you looked at our curve in Montgomery County and you said, ‘I wonder when they closed things, and I wonder when they opened things up,’ you can track those points on our curves and understand exactly when we made those decisions based on those realities,” he said. “That’s speaking broadly and not specific to any industry.”

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