This story was updated at 6:12 p.m. on Feb. 4, 2021, to include additional comments from Robert Wiedmaier and Laura Houlihan
Some restaurateurs in Bethesda say they are grateful Montgomery County is considering allowing restaurants to reopen at 25% indoor capacity, two months after indoor service was banned to limit the spread of COVID-19.
But they don’t understand the rationale behind part of the proposal — each customer can only spend a maximum of one hour inside at a time.
County Executive Marc Elrich sent a proposed executive order to the County Council on Tuesday that would allow customers one hour in a restaurant, from when they are seated to when they leave.
Restaurants would need to keep a record of at least one person in each party who ate there for at least 30 days.
The executive order, which would reopen restaurants at 25% indoor capacity, is scheduled to be introduced by the council on Thursday. Then, the council is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the proposal on Tuesday and vote.
The measure could take effect as early as 5 p.m. Tuesday if approved.
The county banned indoor dining on Dec. 15 due to the rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths.
Restaurateurs such as Zaid Barsoom, who owns Bacchus of Lebanon on Norfolk Avenue, said Wednesday night that the one-hour time limit isn’t realistic.
“Honestly, it’s a joke,” he said.
“To come into a restaurant [and] order an appetizer — by the time you sit down and look at the menu, you need at least 10 minutes. You order your appetizer — you need at least 15 to 20 minutes to really enjoy your appetizer. That means I’m asking the patrons to eat in less than half an hour.”
Barsoom said the proposal sends the wrong message.
“The feeling I get out of this is it’s basically telling the customers, ‘We don’t want you in the restaurant. Come order your food and take it home.’ That’s exactly what it feels like the county’s telling the people,” he said.
Asked if reopening at 25% would help, Barsoom said it would “tremendously” — but not if it’s coupled with the one-hour time limit.
Rob Blackwood, the general manager at Brickside Food & Drink on Cordell Avenue, said he understands the need for a time limit, but “an hour is a little extreme.”
“Even though I’m a bar-style restaurant, I could probably get people in and out. But people like Barrel and Crow or Duck Duck Goose. … How can you serve a meal like that in one hour?” he said.
Blackwood said he wonders how the county will enforce the time limit, and what constitutes a customer meeting the one-hour threshold.
“Say they’re here for an hour [and] they walk out for an hour. Are they allowed to come back in for an hour? I mean, there’s a lot of questions that managers and owners have, nobody’s being transparent about, and nobody has an answer for anything we’re asking,” he said.
Blackwood said he worries about additional stress as a manager, because the responsibility will fall on him to alert customers when it’s time to leave.
Despite the time limit concern, Blackwood said he’s grateful the county is considering reopening to 25%.
“We’re not gonna make any money off this, but now we can start paying off some bills that are back-owed. We’re just trying to keep our doors open. So, this will definitely help us keep our doors open,” he said.
Brickside is one of more than 30 Montgomery County restaurants suing the county over its December dining ban. A hearing is scheduled in Circuit Court for Feb. 11.
The first hearing on the restaurant’s lawsuit was held in December and ended with a circuit court judge declining to overturn the ban, but promising to hold a second hearing.
Blackwood said he and others in the restaurant industry want to see changes soon on the county’s policy on indoor dining.
“We get it. There’s a pandemic going on. We want to be as safe as possible,” he said. “But at the same time, if you want Cordell to close, keep doing what you’re doing, because you’re gonna force every single bar and restaurant on Cordell Avenue [to close] in the next couple months unless something changes.”
Robert Wiedmaier, a D.C.-area restaurateur who owns Mussel Bar Bethesda, Lock 72 in Potomac and Wildwood Kitchen in Bethesda said on Thursday that limiting indoor dining to one hour per party is “an absolute joke.”
“It’s ridiculous. The fact that Montgomery County is still closed is ridiculous. I mean, D.C’s open at 25%. In Virginia, [indoor dining’s] open and Montgomery County’s closed,” he said. “And [with] all the people that go in and out of Montgomery County, Northern Virginia and D.C., you’d think places could get together and do the same thing at the same time. But no, they can’t do that. Montgomery County’s special.”
Wiedmaier said Montgomery County officials have taken an “anti-business” position and haven’t adequately explained the scientific reasons for the one-hour limit.
“It’s like, why? Give me a reason why. Are they gonna tell me there’s not enough hospital beds in Montgomery County? I don’t know. They’re killing restaurants. They’re absolutely killing them,” he said.
Wiedmaier said he would be happen if restaurants reopened at 25% without the additional time limit.
“It’d be great to open up. We’re not makin’ jack with a tent outside the restaurants in freezing cold weather. This will be probably the worst January in the history of the restaurant industry,” he said.
Laura Houlihan, the owner of Bethesda’s Barrel and Crow, wrote in a text message to Bethesda Beat on Thursday that she worries about diners going to the other jurisdictions to eat.
“Clearly, you are promoting dining in D.C. or Virginia, where you can drive 15-20 [minutes] and have a nice meal indoors,” she wrote.
Houlihan added that she is “saddened by the lack of information given and shown to numerous restaurants that are trying to stay alive and promote Montgomery County.”
Dan Schere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org