Mayor Brandon Scott, who was sworn in on Tuesday, instituted new restrictions on restaurants, retail businesses and other spaces effective at 5 p.m. Friday. Image via Facebook Live.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, who was sworn in yesterday, issued new orders today banning restaurants and indoor recreational facilities from operating due to increased cases, hospitalizations, and other indicators of the spread of coronavirus. The order takes effect on Friday, Dec. 11 at 5 p.m.

The mayor prefaced his announcement with statistics indicating huge jumps in measures of the severity of the coronavirus spread in the city. In the last several weeks, the city has seen a positivity rate rise of 294%; an increase of admissions to hospitals of 314%; and a 520% increase in ICU care.

The mayor consulted with Baltimore City Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa before making his decision, the order asserts.

Foodservice establishments will be required to shut down their indoor and dining operations but will be allowed to continue carryout, delivery and drive-though services.

Theaters, outdoor entertainment venues, indoor recreational establishments, such as cigar and hookah bars and adult entertainment venues, will also be required to close.

The order will also prohibit sports gatherings at facilities controlled by the Department of Recreation and Parks.

Indoor gatherings at public and private facilities, private homes, and public spaces will be capped at 10 people. No more than 25 people may attend outdoor gatherings at public and private facilities. Both limits are equal to the limits the state has imposed.

Capacity will be capped at 25% for retail establishments; malls; religious facilities; outdoor recreational establishments; personal service establishments, such as barbershops and hair salons; fitness centers; museums; the casino; the zoo; and the aquarium.

The casino will not be allowed to serve food or drinks.

Personal service establishments must have staff wear face coverings at all times indoors. Those businesses must also provide services on an “important only basis” and keep a log of customers, staff providing services, and anyone else who enters the building in case such information is needed for contact tracing.

“When it comes to the wellbeing of our residents, I am not afraid to do the right thing over the popular one,” Scott said during a press conference Wednesday. “This is about saving lives. Nothing more, nothing less.”

The mayor said that he will work with Dzirasa and public health experts to review the city’s coronavirus data and determine when to loosen or tighten restrictions as needed.

Scott added that the city will be enforcing these new orders, but he plans to first educate people before implementing punishments for failure to follow the restrictions.

The city will also be providing additional funding to support restaurants during this period of closure.

“We understand and we know that our restaurant industry has been one of the hardest hit by this pandemic,” Scott said. “The city has been proactive in seeking ways to support our restaurant community.”

Baltimore City has already provided $5.5 million worth of grants through the Baltimore Development Corporation, the city’s quasi-public economic development arm. Among those grants, $2.8 million was provided to Baltimore restaurants, carryout establishments, bars and taverns, with 30% of those grants provided to businesses that received no federal or state funds for small businesses, Scott said.

BDC next week will begin awarding an additional $6.5 million in grants from the state of Maryland to support Baltimore restaurants and public markets, Scott said.

Dzirasa said bars and restaurants are generally “higher risk settings” for the potential spread of COVID-19 because people are unable to wear masks while eating and drinking, and they may be spending long periods of time indoors with people outside of their household.

With widespread community transmission of the virus in Baltimore City, Dzirasa said 50% of COVID-19 cases are now spread by someone without any symptoms

The new restrictions for Baltimore City are designed to decrease a surge of admissions at hospitals, which are already at 85% of their maximum capacity, she said.

Dzirasa added that history shows that “targeted interventions work,” pointing to when the city saw a rise in cases in late July, implemented restrictions on occupancy and gatherings in August, and saw the number of new cases decrease a few weeks later.

“Armed with that information, to do nothing would be the same as conceding defeat to the coronavirus,” she said.

Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the new restrictions were “important and right” for controlling the spread of coronavirus in Baltimore.

“While we have done better in Maryland than many states, and better in Baltimore than many cities, we are not invulnerable to this virus,” Inglesby said.

Inglesby said that a vaccine is likely to begin being rolled out in the coming days, providing a “light at the end of the tunnel.” But he added that it will be months before “substantial numbers of people” are vaccinated and that people must continue following health guidelines to limit the coronavirus spread.

“What happens in the next few months is up to us,” he said.

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Marcus Dieterle

Marcus Dieterle is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. He returned to Baltimore in 2020 after working as the deputy editor of the Cecil Whig newspaper in Elkton, Md. He can be reached at marcus@baltimorefishbowl.com...