County Executive Jan Gardner (D) announced Monday that Frederick County would "take a pause" and keep restaurants, bars and event spaces at 50 percent capacity.
The decision veers from Gov. Larry Hogan's (R) Friday announcement that those establishments could open up to 75 percent for indoor dining capacity, beginning at 5 p.m. Monday.
Gardner outlined several local coronavirus health statistics before announcing the "pause," including that as of Monday, the seven-day average for new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people was at 9.85. She was concerned that stat was higher than nearby larger jurisdictions: Howard County is at 7.41 and Montgomery County at 9.12.
On Saturday, the county reported 45 new cases, which was the largest single-day total in a month, Gardner said.
"I am very concerned about this sudden increase in cases, and I’m concerned we’re outpacing our bigger county neighbors, which have bigger populations and have had, generally, a higher degree of new cases and spread of the virus," Gardner said.
Dr. Barbara Brookmyer, the county's chief health officer, said the seven-day case average statistic per 100,000 people is important because it allows Frederick County to compare rates with other counties.
"When we monitor new cases over time, we have a good idea of whether the virus is spreading to more people," Brookmyer wrote in an email. "We also have to remember that there are probably more cases than the ones that we find out about through lab tests. We look at cases rates—per 100,000 population—instead of just the number of new cases so that we can compare our population to other jurisdictions."
Gardner added that she and the county Office of Economic Development were exploring using some CARES Act funding to help local bars and restaurants as the weather starts to get colder.
They county will have conversations with local representatives of the Restaurant Association of Maryland about that funding, and how to proceed through the winter months, Gardner said.
Even if additional capacity becomes available soon, some restaurants might find it difficult to make it profitable, since keeping tables six feet apart and having a limited amount of people at each table is still in effect, she said.
"If you're a small restaurant, and you’ve already kind of spaced it out, you may not be able to take much advantage of a capacity change," Gardner said. "I would think a larger restaurant would have a larger opportunity to do that, but I think for many restaurants, it’s not going to make a big difference."
That's the case for Thurmont Kountry Kitchen, said owner Sherry Myers. Although dine-in service has picked up in the last month or so, there's not a lot of physical space in her restaurant, she said.
"We’re a small business as it is … with six feet social distancing [between tables], we were unable to take and expand anyway," Myers said. "It had no big impact on us either way."
Some, however, have larger spaces and could add some more customers with the additional 25 percent in capacity. That includes Mountain View Diner on the Golden Mile.
But general manager Paula Borsey said she would rather "take it easy and do whatever we can do to control" the coronavirus from spreading further, and wasn't opposed to remaining at 50 percent capacity.
Shannon Blackway, owner of Morgan's American Grill in New Market, however, said she has the space to add roughly 50 more customers if capacity jumped from 50 to 75 percent.
She said one issue is residents in other jurisdictions will jump from place to place to dine at restaurants, given differing local guidelines. And customers were just getting comfortable eating out again.
"Holding back deters people from going out at all … I feel like people have just started to get more comfortable with coming out, and this is going to delay that," Blackway said.
Some new customers have come in, she added, because there's less time for families to cook, with the added stress of virtual learning while still working from home.
"They can’t handle getting dinner on the table, their day is so full," Blackway said.
County officials will continue to reevaluate capacity levels and restrictions in the coming weeks, Gardner said.
"If we want this balance we’re trying to strike between health and the economy, we all need to do our part," Gardner said. "The business community ... [has] a very difficult time trying to enforce that people should wear a mask, and so if people would cooperate and do that themselves, it would just make life a little bit easier for everybody involved."
Brookmyer said face coverings, given recent studies, make a difference.
"Wearing face coverings is one important part of our strategy to reduce the spread of the virus, along with physical distancing and hand hygiene ... Since we don’t have any proven COVID-19 medications or vaccine yet, our best tools are the simple ones that do actually work," Brookmyer said.