2021 | Courts

Second hearing for Montgomery County restaurant lawsuit might happen next month

Circuit judge upheld indoor dining ban on Dec. 23

File photo

Another hearing in a lawsuit by dozens of Montgomery County restaurants seeking to overturn the county’s indoor dining ban might happen next month, according to a law clerk for the presiding judge.

The restaurateurs, represented by the Restaurant Association of Maryland, filed the lawsuit in Montgomery County Circuit Court last month.

They sued, seeking an injunction and a temporary restraining order, after the County Council approved the dining ban on Dec. 15. The ban was a response to rising numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths this winter. The order allows outdoor dining, as well as takeout and delivery service.

The plaintiffs hoped that a judge would overturn the county’s order just before the Christmas holidays, but Circuit Court Judge James Bonifant upheld it on Dec. 23 following a 12-hour emergency hearing.

Bonifant said at the time that his ruling was based on the belief that county officials are acting in the public’s best interest by trying to protect the community from the virus. But he said he wanted to review the evidence further in a second preliminary injunction hearing.

On Thursday, Bonifant’s law clerk, Alexandra Mussler, told Bethesda Beat that the plaintiffs’ attorneys sent a letter earlier this week expressing interest in participating in a second hearing.

The parties are trying to work out a date, and it will likely be in the first or second week of February, she said.

Mussler said Bonifant offered to hold a hearing earlier this month, but he never received a response from the plaintiffs.

Attorney Ed Hartman, of Annapolis, represents more than 30 restaurants in the county in one lawsuit. Attorney Dan Cox, of Emmitsburg, represents Clarksburg Tavern, which filed a separate lawsuit. The two lawsuits were merged together in the same hearing, Mussler said.

Hartman wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat Friday morning that he does not comment on pending litigation. Cox could be reached for comment on Thursday.

On Tuesday, attorneys Marc Hansen, Silvia Kinch and Amy DiBiasio, representing Montgomery County, filed an answer to the complaint in the lawsuit involving more than 30 restaurants. In the answer, the attorneys requested the court to deny the plaintiffs’ claims for relief and dismiss the complaint with prejudice.

Judges in Prince George’s County and Baltimore City upheld similar dining bans on the same day last month that Bonifant upheld Montgomery’s.

But Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott announced this week that restaurants and bars will open for indoor dining at 25% capacity starting Friday. Outdoor capacity at 50% is allowed.

Washington, D.C., will also start allowing businesses to serve at 25% capacity starting Friday.

Montgomery County will have to wait a little longer before dining restrictions can be lifted, County Executive Marc Elrich said during a briefing on Thursday. He said it’s possible there will be a time limit for customers seated at tables.

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