ANNAPOLIS, Md. (WJZ) — After two days of court hearings on Anne Arundel County’s suspension of indoor dining, the lawsuit was dismissed and County Executive Steuart Pittman will allow 25% indoor dining capacity.
As soon as Pittman signed a new executive order Wednesday morning, the Titan Hospitality Group agreed to dismiss the case. Pittman’s previous order suspended indoor dining for four weeks.
Outdoor dining is also permitted so long as the tents provided have at least half of the sides up at all times.
Restaurants must collect contact tracing information from customers.
In a statement, Pittman said:
“Yesterday in court, Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman Dr. Eili Klein of Johns Hopkins Medicine and I described the metrics and considerations that led me to suspend indoor dining from December 16 to January 13. I believe we demonstrated to the court that the county’s decision was based on our strong desire to save lives and protect public health and was neither arbitrary nor capricious. However, the prospect of a sudden and disruptive closure of indoor dining prompted me to evaluate the best course of action at this time.
“Since December 10 when I announced the four week suspension of indoor dining, much has changed. Catastrophic hospitalization projections, rising case rates, rising death rates, and restrictions put in effect by the state and the county have altered public behavior. Case rates have dropped slightly and hospitalization projections have been adjusted downward. We still expect a challenging surge in COVID hospitalizations and a post-holiday case rate increase, but the improved forecast allows us to maintain our current level of restrictions.
“In recognition of the progress our residents have made holding our numbers down in the last two weeks, I am pleased to announce that Anne Arundel restaurants may continue offering indoor dining at 25% capacity. We will monitor community spread daily, consult with public health experts, provide assistance to our businesses and residents, and facilitate the flow of federal relief funds to our people and businesses that are currently struggling. I encourage county residents to support our local restaurants and go to aacounty.org/carryout to find a restaurant to pick up your next meal.
“I look forward to entering the new year with a little less conflict and a lot more hope.”
Pittman and county health officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman took the witness stand Tuesday before both sides rested their case in the lawsuit brought by restaurant owners demanding to keep their businesses open.
Pittman testified, “I was looking at numbers that quite frankly alarmed me,” and said the dining ban was extraordinarily difficult to sign because he understood the economic impact.
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Pittman said he expected to win the lawsuit.
The county executive says he expected to win the lawsuit but decided to drop his dining ban after talking to his team; he says restaurants must now collect contact tracing information from customers. @wjz
— Mike Hellgren (@HellgrenWJZ) December 30, 2020
The judge questioned Dr. Kalyanaraman about worst-case hospitalization projections that he believed were off by roughly 5,000 patients.
“I’m trying to figure out why you would think you need to have a greater shutdown. …That is so wildly off,” Judge Mulford declared from the bench. “…You are focusing on the worst case. I’m trying to get the real numbers.“
Pittman said he reserves the right to reverse the decision should coronavirus numbers begin increasing again.
James King of Titan Hospitality Group was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
“It’s a little bittersweet for us,” he told WJZ Investigator Mike Hellgren. “We’re fighting really to lose money.”
He said it remains difficult to operate even at 25 percent capacity for indoor dining and he worries about those employed in the restaurant industry.
“If they lose their jobs, they will lose their apartments. They will lose their houses. They will not have money to put food on the table for their kids,” King said.
‘We felt we had no other choice and we had to fight for our survival’ James King, a restaurant owner and plaintiff who sued Anne Arundel County to keep indoor dining open. https://t.co/YiXErAyZKn @wjz pic.twitter.com/ACFcLWEdTQ
— Mike Hellgren (@HellgrenWJZ) December 31, 2020
King said he wants to work with the county executive and understands the difficult balance of public health and safety but will consider taking legal action again if he feels restrictions are unfairly applied to restaurants.
“We’re stronger together…and I think we’re all fully committed to fighting to protect our industry regardless of the hurdle,” he said.
King also has no regrets about filing the lawsuit.
“Any time you mount a legal challenge, it’s costly: the time, the money, the stress. Obviously, we didn’t want to go there. We felt we had no other choice, and we had to fight for our survival,“ he said about the litigation.
Brian Bolter who runs several restaurants including Dry 85 in Annapolis said the fight has been a “roller coaster” and he feels restaurants have become a target.
“It’s just been emotionally, physically, mentally a beat down for all of our employees and our industry as a whole,” Bolter said.
Brian Bolter, an Annapolis restaurateur, praises the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge whose temporary restraining order and hearing on the county’s indoor dining ban ultimately allowed restaurants to keep their dining rooms open at a critical time. @wjz pic.twitter.com/KfJvNti45k
— Mike Hellgren (@HellgrenWJZ) December 31, 2020
He believes Pittman issued a new executive order before the judge could rule against him and set a precedent limiting the government’s authority.
“Thankfully this judge said, ‘Stop and show us the proof.’ When the cards were on the table, the county didn’t have a valid argument to put 165,000 hospitality workers out in the cold,” he said. “The county recognized they did not have a winning hand here. They did not have the data to support what they were doing. And they saw the writing on the wall so they decided to back off. Thankfully, a bunch of restaurants got together and forced their hand to show us the facts.“
Similar litigation to keep restaurants open in Baltimore City and other Maryland counties has failed.
On Twitter Wednesday afternoon, the Restaurant Association of Maryland praised the decision.
Restaurants across the state have been operating safely at 50% indoor capacity with no evidence that they are the cause of COVID spread. We must all continue to act responsibly to reduce the spread of COVID so that restaurants can get to full capacity again. (2/2)
— Restaurant Association of MD (@RestaurantsinMD) December 30, 2020
“We are pleased to see that Anne Arundel County has reopened indoor dining and we are calling on Baltimore City, Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties to do the same,” the group tweeted. “Restaurants across the state have been operating safely at 50% indoor capacity with no evidence that they are the cause of COVID spread. We must all continue to act responsibly to reduce the spread of COVID so that restaurants can get to full capacity again.”