For bars and restaurants in downtown Frederick, the night before Thanksgiving is usually one of the busiest nights of the year, with establishments across town packed shoulder-to-shoulder with revelers and college kids looking to meet up with old friends and get out of the house for a while.
It starts with a busier-than-normal dinner rush, then around 8 p.m., the bar starts to fill up and stays that way until last call, said Keelin Mallory, general manager at Firestone’s Culinary Tavern.
“It might as well be a Saturday night on Wednesday,” she said.
But this year, with bars limited to 50 percent of their normal capacity and required to stop serving customers at 10 p.m. to help control the spread of the coronavirus amid a rise in cases in the county and nation, bars are casting a wary eye on what Wednesday night will bring.
“It’s a total unknown. We’re kind of playing it by ear,” said John Wagner, the owner of Wags on South Market Street.
Between the capacity limits and officials warning people against going out or gathering in large groups, Mallory and Amanda Mayers, a server and bartender at Bushwaller’s on North Market Street, both said they expect to do about a quarter of their business on a normal Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
Officers from the Frederick Police Department, the Frederick County Liquor Board, the Office of the State Fire Marshal and the Frederick County Health Department will conduct compliance checks Wednesday evening.
Usually on the night before Thanksgiving, “hundreds of young people descend on downtown and do a whole lot of drinking,” said Lt. John Corbett of the Frederick Police Department.
The department usually has about 20 officers out that night to deal with noise complaints, assaults, public urination and other issues, he said.
This year, some of them will conduct drunken driving patrols, while the special group will focus on vehicle and foot patrols for COVID-19 compliance.
Mayers said she agrees with many of the restrictions to help stop the spread of the virus. But still, it’s been hard.
Their capacity is down to 44 people at a time, and they still have to maintain a social distance of six feet apart, with no one allowed to stand at the bar.
“We’re starting to get a little worried,” Mayers said.
Normally on the night before Thanksgiving, Wagner brings in extra wait staff and hires a doorman to count patrons and make sure they don’t go over the capacity allowed by the fire marshal.
But this year, with the strict guidelines on the number of patrons allowed, people just won’t be able to come in if all the seats are filled.
That’s hard for owners who spend so much time thinking about how to attract customers.
“You have to do everything you can to get people in. You don’t want to turn anyone away,” Wagner said.
He’d been hoping that, with the latest round of restrictions and the order to stop service at 10 p.m., people would come out earlier.
But if anything, people are staying at home even more, he said.
Mallory said she’s noticed a serious decline in business over the past two weeks. She suspects people who want to travel for Thanksgiving are staying home because they want to limit their exposure to the virus before they do travel.
In March, the state prohibited dine-in service at bars and restaurants the day before St. Patrick’s Day, also one of the busiest drinking days of the year.
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, along with Frederick’s In The Streets festival in September, are just about as busy.
This week is a mere continuation of the climate of uncertainty that bars and restaurants have faced since the start of the pandemic.
When Wags closed in the spring, Wagner and his staff had to throw out or give away about $5,000 worth of food in their freezers. It took about a week to get stocked back up when they were allowed to reopen.
If it happens again, he doesn’t know if they’ll be able to do it a second time.
“I go day by day,” he said.
Mayers’ hands are red from frequent washing, and Bushwaller’s has six hand sanitizing stations and three or four types of sanitizers to wipe down chairs, menus, tables, utensils and other items after each use.
But she doesn’t know what the next few months hold.
“It’s going to be definitely an interesting holiday season,” she said.
Even with positive news in recent days on potential vaccines coming soon, Mallory is uncertain.
“The game plan is, just hold on for the next six months,” she said.