Alma Cocina Latina moved from Canton to Station North in February 2021. Photo by Irena Stein.

The week before Christmas, an Omicron-fueled COVID-19 outbreak swept through Irena Stein’s lauded Station North restaurant Alma Cocina Latina, infecting all but two members of the kitchen staff and management team.

“It was like a firecracker,” said Stein, the Venezuelan restaurant’s co-founder. 

Luckily, the restaurant had already planned to close for ten days between Christmas and New Year’s, Stein explained, avoiding the costly expense of a forced closure.  

“We were very fortunate it happened while we were on break,” she said.

When the staff returned from the holiday, everyone had to receive a negative test before coming back to work.  

The omicron variant added complications to the mix of challenges that restaurant owners and workers were facing even before the surge: supply chain issues, a lack of financial help from the government, struggles to hire and retain workers, and protocol to ensure the health and safety of staff and customers.

Sudden workplace outbreaks and an absence of clear guidelines have left restaurant owners confused and unsure how to react.  

“A lot of people are still in survival mode,” said Tim “Chyno” Chin, co-owner of Pinch Dumplings in Mount Vernon and a food personality who runs the popular Instagram account thebaltimorefoodie.

“Every single day, you have to evaluate if the consequences of your income loss outweigh the safety of your health,” Chin said.

When the pandemic hit, Chin helped start The Baltimore Restaurant Relief Fund with Dave Seel, principal of Blue Fork Marketing and president of the relief fund. 

The organization began as a Facebook group where restaurant owners and workers could go to find resources and soon became a fund to provide financial assistance to restaurants in Baltimore. 

In the beginning, “there was a lot of energy being put into restaurants in general,” Seel said.

“A lot of people wanted to know how to help,” he added. 

But at this point in the pandemic, restaurants are not receiving the financial help that they need, Seel explained.

“A lot of initiatives have been thrown to the wayside, because people think, ‘Well, the pandemic is almost done, they’ll be fine, it will be back to normal,’ whereas we’re back to struggle,” he said, “We’re still in a pandemic situation.”

Some Baltimore restaurants are calling on lawmakers to provide more federal funding through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund Replenishment Act of 2021. 

When the American Rescue Plan Act was signed into law in March 2021, it included $28.6 billion in federal funds for restaurants. 

By the end of June 2021, the Restaurant Revitalization Fund was depleted.

In mid-June, U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) introduced the Restaurant Revitalization Fund Replenishment Act of 2021 — Bill S2091 — which aims to provide $60 billion to support restaurants. 

The bill has been sitting in Congress since then. 

According to a January survey of restaurants in all 50 states from the Independent Restaurant Coalition, more than 1 in 4 restaurants without RRF funding face eviction, and 50% face bankruptcy. 

Last year, a total of 278,304 restaurants nationwide applied for Restaurant Relief Fund grants. But by the time the $28.6 billion in federal funds had run out, more than 177,000 eligible restaurants that applied for grants did not receive them, according to the National Restaurant Association.

In Maryland, 5,386 restaurants applied for roughly $1.3 billion in funding, and only 2,024 applicants were paid a total of just over a half-billion, per a review of federal data by Baltimore Fishbowl. 

In Baltimore, nearly two out of three restaurants that applied for grants received nothing. 

Zack Mills, chef and co-owner of True Chesapeake Oyster Co. and The Local Oyster, said his restaurants applied on time and still didn’t receive funding. 

Last Tuesday, both restaurants were closed to participate in the Independent Restaurant Coalition’s National Day of Action to push Congress to replenish the fund. 

The revitalization fund “was a great plan, it helped a lot of restaurants out, but it didn’t help us all out,” Mills said.

“We’re fighting for all of the little guys that didn’t get anything in the first round,” he added. 

According to new data from the Independent Restaurant Coalition, 58% of restaurants and bars nationwide lost more than half their revenue under the omicron surge.

“Restaurants are the first ones to be closed and the last ones to be supported financially by the government,” Stein said. 

One of her other restaurants, a café called Alkimia that was located in Gilman Hall at Johns Hopkins University, closed in 2020 due to COVID-19.

In addition to funding issues, Baltimore restaurants are struggling to figure out how to navigate the omicron variant with an evolving set of city and statewide mandates. 

In the first week of January, Gov. Larry Hogan issued a state of emergency, but stopped short of statewide mask and vaccine mandates. 

The same week, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott proposed the idea of vaccine passports for the city and the other “Big Eight” counties, which would require bars, restaurants, and other venues to check their patrons’ proof of vaccination before they enter indoor areas. Baltimore has not yet implemented such a system.

Other East Coast cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. require proof of vaccination in indoor establishments. 

Restaurant owners and workers in Baltimore have had to take on the role of public-health enforcers, as patrons come in from other counties or states that have different mandates.

In terms of mandates, “you have half of restaurant owners saying, ‘We just want business and we don’t really care,’ and the other half saying ‘Actually, we’re really concerned,’” Seel said. 

Last summer, Mills and his team at True Chesapeake decided to instate a policy requiring customers to show proof of vaccination, becoming the first restaurant group in Baltimore to implement a vaccine mandate. 

As the delta variant drove up COVID-19 case numbers during the summer, Mills had a feeling that his restaurant was in for another tough winter. 

“The writing was on the wall,” Mills said. 

After going back and forth for a couple of weeks, the restaurant decided to instate the requirement to show proof of vaccination.

“We said the whole time, ‘We’re doing this simply for us,’” Mills said, “This is what we felt was the best way to keep our staff and guests as safe as possible.”

In recent weeks, other restaurants such as the Golden West Café in Hampden have also started requiring proof of vaccination. The Silver Queen Café in Waltherson has required vaccination proof since Aug. 8, 2021.

Before announcing the requirement for his restaurant, Mills polled his staff, who were all on board. 

Across the restaurant industry and other sectors, workers have also been seeking better wages and working conditions.

Like many restaurants, True Chesapeake is operating with a smaller staff than usual.

Mills has made an effort to “think outside the box” to find workers, connecting with organizations like Maryland Food Bank, which has a culinary program, and Paul’s Place, which runs an initiative to teach low-income adults how to cook and operate restaurants. 

As omicron continues to spread, restaurant owners are increasingly focused on keeping their staff healthy. 

“A lot of restaurant operators are beginning to put their workers first,” Seel said.

“These businesses can’t run without a labor force,” he said, “The power has shifted into the hands of the workers, for the better, so they can demand, or at least work with their owner-operators, to say ‘Hey, we don’t feel safe.’”

Chris Amendola, chef and owner of Foraged Eatery, said he has always put his team first.

“These guys are going to bat for me, helping me to achieve my dreams,” Amendola said.

“I’ve been really grateful to have a solid staff to help us through and keep things moving forward,” he said.

Despite the challenges that she and other business owners are facing, Stein is operating with a cautious optimism about the future of her restaurant.

In the latest wave, “we have to keep spirits high,” she said.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that the Silver Queen Café started requiring proof of vaccination in August 2021, not in recent weeks, and that the restaurant is located in the Waltherson neighborhood, not Glenham-Belford.