2020 | Government

County to reopen indoor dining with 25% capacity, time limit

Diners can eat indoors for up to 90 minutes, starting Sunday morning

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This story was updated at 1:56 p.m. on Feb. 9, 2021, to include comments from the Restaurant Association of Maryland.

The Montgomery County Council on Tuesday approved an executive order allowing restaurants to reopen indoor dining at a capacity of 25%. Customers will be restricted to dining indoors for 90 minutes each.

The order previously proposed a 60-minute limit, but County Executive Marc Elrich expanded it. He also changed the order’s effective date from Tuesday of this week at 5 p.m. to Sunday at 7 a.m.

The council did not unanimously support the change. The council voted 7-2 to reopen indoor dining with the restrictions.

Council Members Will Jawando and Craig Rice voted against the order, saying that they were concerned about how the reopening would affect the spread of COVID-19 cases.

Under the executive order, restaurants would be required to keep a daily record of the date and time of the meal service and the 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.

Jawando said eating indoors is still not safe.

“I’ve spoken with public health officials, including our own, who have said that this is not a safe activity,” he said. “The [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] has said that. … The idea that we would be doing an executive order to encourage people to go out on Valentine’s Day, where you’re going to have a lot of people out — it flies in the face of public health guidance.”

Jawando said the county’s priority should be reopening schools safely. Once that happens, the county should revisit indoor dining, he said.

He also said he was concerned about the presence of COVID-19 variants. Two Montgomery County residents recently tested positive for the South African variant of the virus, which is believed to be more transmissible. Officials believe they are travel-related cases.

Jawando noted that many of the council members who supported the order said that they would not eat indoors at restaurants. Voting for the order and publicly refraining from indoor dining would send mixed messages to residents, he said.

Rice said the risk of the virus spreading was not worth opening indoor dining.

“When there are variants that are coming out, when we still have transmission rates that are higher than they were when we were shut down and had stay-at-home orders, I just can’t see us doing this,” he said. “Lastly, if we are to reopen our schools and make sure that we are getting our children back in the classrooms, that can’t happen if we have an increase in community spread.”

Council Member Evan Glass, who supported the order allowing indoor dining, said the limits are severe.
“The data is showing that we can do this. We can do this smartly, which I think is what a 25% capacity limit is,” he said. “If the data changes, we will reevaluate this.”

Council Member Nancy Navarro said the county is an outlier, the only jurisdiction in the state to currently not allow indoor dining. To have in a regional approach, the county should reopen indoor dining with the capacity and time limits, she said.

“I hope that residents make informed decisions,” she said.

The county closed indoor dining on Dec. 15 in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Outdoor dining, carryout, delivery and drive-through service is still permitted.

In December, more than 30 restaurants, with help from the Restaurant Association of Maryland (RAM), filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the county’s ban on indoor dining.

After a 12-hour hearing on Dec. 23, a Montgomery County circuit judge declined to strike down the ban. However, a second hearing in the case is scheduled for Thursday.

Nicole Gould, a spokeswoman for RAM, wrote in an email Tuesday afternoon that the restaurants involved in the lawsuit are just being made aware of the order and “will be taking the time to look it over in detail before making a decision on how to proceed.”

Marshall Weston, the president of RAM, wrote in a statement following Tuesday’s reopening vote by the council that the association is “pleased Montgomery County is joining the rest of the region and allowing for indoor dining again.”

“Restaurants are eager to bring their employees back to work and will continue to provide a safe and regulated environment for their customers,” Weston wrote.

Staff reporter Dan Schere contributed to this story.

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