2021 | Government

UPDATED: County considering reopening indoor dining with one-hour limit per customer

Jawando says ‘backwards’ step during COVID-19 spread would be ‘ridiculous’

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This story was updated at 9:51 a.m. on Feb. 3, 2021, to include additional details about the executive order.

Montgomery County officials are considering reopening indoor dining at 25% capacity, but might limit each customer’s dining time to one hour.

A draft executive order County Executive Marc Elrich sent the County Council on Tuesday says the one-hour dining period for each customer would run from when they are seated until when they leave.

Restaurants would be required to keep a daily record of the date, time, name and contact information of at least one person in each dining party. The record would be kept for at least 30 days for contact tracing purposes.

Alcohol sales would be suspended after 10 p.m.

The earliest the County Council could vote on the order is Feb. 9.

The county closed indoor dining on Dec. 15. Outdoor dining, carryout, delivery and drive-through services are still allowed. Outdoor dining is only permitted between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Although the number of new daily confirmed cases has started to decline in recent days, county health officials say indoor dining is still not a safe activity.

Dr. Earl Stoddard, executive director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, told the County Council on Tuesday that the change would strike a balance between safety and economic health.

“That still doesn’t make it an encouraged or safe activity that many people should participate in. … Just because something is permitted, does not mean it is a good idea,” he said.

Stoddard said Montgomery is the “outlier” in holding back as many surrounding counties and jurisdictions allow indoor dining.

“I would argue that that’s not in their public health interest nor is it in ours,” he said, describing indoor dining as still a significant exposure risk.

Council Member Will Jawando criticized the idea of allowing customers back inside restaurants.

“The [COVID-19 case] numbers are going down — that’s great,” he said. “But why would we go backwards with what we’re trying to do? … I just don’t know why we would send any message, which is what we would be doing if we approved a 25% indoor dining allowance, that that’s OK while we’re trying to get teachers vaccinated, [people 75 and older] vaccinated, get kids back in school.”

Jawando said the council should not support the order.

“It just seems totally backwards that we would say we’ve made a couple weeks of progress and we’re going to open indoor dining. … We’ve got to control what we can control,” he said, referring to the county’s ability to control restrictions but not the allocation of vaccines to the county.

Federal, state and local financial relief should instead be funneled to restaurants, he said, and carryout service should continue.

Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, told the council that public health guidance would be provided if the order passed.

“There are certainly risks with the activity and in the instance, if there is an effort to move forward, we’ll try to provide the best public health guidance to mitigate transmission as much as possible within that setting,” he said.

More than 30 restaurants filed a lawsuit in December, an action initiated by the Restaurant Association of Maryland, seeking to overturn the county’s Dec. 15 executive order.

Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge James Bonifant upheld the order during a 12-hour emergency hearing two days before Christmas, but said he planned to schedule a second hearing.

A hearing in the lawsuit is scheduled before Bonifant the morning of Feb. 11, Judicial Assistant Kara Hawkins told Bethesda Beat on Wednesday.

Representatives from the restaurant association could not immediately be reached for comment on Tuesday.

The restaurant association, on Jan. 27, urged Elrich and the County Council to lift the dining ban in response to declining cases per 100,000 people, a declining positivity rate and declining hospital bed usage between Jan. 12 and 26, according to county data.

“According to the their own COVID dashboard, there has been a documented steady decline in numbers for the past two weeks,” the association said in a statement. “It remains grossly unfair that thousands of restaurant employees in Montgomery County are being asked to accept the burden of not being permitted to work when there is no evidence that restaurants are a cause of COVID spread.

“Meanwhile, residents continue to visit other jurisdictions for indoor dining while the livelihoods of Montgomery County restaurants and their employees remain in critical jeopardy.”

Staff reporter Dan Schere contributed to this story.

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