KENT NARROWS — U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md.-1st, visited six Eastern Shore restaurants Wednesday, May 20, in Queen Anne’s, Kent and Caroline counties to show owners support as they weather the COVID-19 storm and prepare to reopen, and he continued to push for restaurants to reopen with outdoor seating available rather than carryout only. Five of the six restaurants he visited offer outdoor seating.
Two weeks ago, Harris visited four Queen Anne’s County businesses that had been classified nonessential that he felt should be considered for reopening: PRS Guitars in Stevensville, The Boatel and Wye River Marine at Kent Narrows in Grasonville and the Queenstown Harbor Golf Links. Each had plans in place to reopen safely. They all were allowed to reopen May 15 when Gov. Larry Hogan rescinded the stay-at-home order that had been in place for eight weeks and announced phase 1 of his reopening of Maryland’s economy.
Restaurants in Maryland were allowed to remain open only for curbside and carryout service since the mid-March stay-at-home order. Some restaurants did that, and some closed altogether.
Harris’ first stop was Fisherman’s Crab Deck, at Kent Narrows in Grasonville. He was greeted by Crab Deck partner Jody Schulz, Queen Anne’s County Chamber of Commerce President Linda Friday, Kent Narrows Development Foundation Executive Director Gigi Windley, Queen Anne’s County Commissioner Chris Corchiarino and county Economic Development Director Heather Tinelli.
Schulz said, “The Crab Deck had been scheduled to open April 23.”
Schulz laid out how the Crab Deck could reopen, following CDC guidelines, spacing tables a minimum of 6 feet apart. Being outdoors provides a safe environment for customers to be served, he said. He emphasized that all staff would be wearing face masks and gloves.
Friday asked, “How much authority do local government leaders have in when restaurants can be opened?”
Harris replied, “Gov. Hogan sets the ceiling on what each county can do. No county can exceed the governor’s guidelines.”
Counties can set stricter guidelines, he said, using examples of several counties that have delayed re-opening businesses based on high infection rates and lack of testing for the coronavirus.
Friday said, “We feel our local officials are closer to understanding the needs and abilities to reopen.”
Corchiarino used the terminology “sensible reopening,” which Harris quickly agreed with.
Harris then traveled to The Big Owl Tiki Bar, also at Kent Narrows. He met with owner Al Wysong and his son Ross Wysong. The Big Owl Tiki Bar is almost completely outdoors, much smaller than the Crab Deck, and serves a limited menu of fish tacos and steamed shrimp, along with the a variety of adult beverages.
Al Wysong told Harris, “My staff is biting at the bit to come to work.”
Wysong was asked how would he handle a huge crowd of people if they turn out when the weather gets warmer. He replied, ‘I don’t think we’re going have a huge crowd like that.”
The next stop for Harris was downtown Chestertown, where he visited the Evergrain Bakery and The Kitchen restaurant, which are directly across the street from one another. Each has remained open for carryout service during the pandemic restrictions.
Harris went inside to meet Evergrain owner Doug Ray. He asked Ray, “What precautions have you been taking to serve customers?”
“We’ve had not problems with making sure our staff is ready. We take everyone’s temperature when they arrive each day for work, and everyone is wearing masks,” Ray said.
Outside the bakery at the door, a sign reads, “Everyone is to wear a mask before coming inside, and limited to 5 customers inside at one time.”
Harris then walked across the street to The Kitchen, where he met with owner Steve Quigg. The Kitchen has outdoor seating in the front of the restaurant, curbside and much more seating out back.
Quigg was asked how busy the restaurant got under normal circumstances. He replied, “On a Saturday night, we’re packed.”
If a large crowd showed up, he said, “We’d have to go to reservation then for seating them. Reservations is not what we normally do. That’s the only way we could control preventing large groups. We’re considered a casual, fine dining restaurant, where reservations are not used. But I’d do it if I had to.”
Quigg also discussed how his staff is preparing to reopen using extra efforts to disinfect everything inside and outside the restaurant.
“Yes, we’re wearing masks, wearing gloves, using disinfectant everywhere. We want our customers to have a sense of confidence when they come here that they are safe. But, I must say, we normally do this, disinfecting, to keep the restaurant clean, even before the pandemic. There are, and have been, standards in our restaurant,” Quigg said.
Before heading to Greensboro, Harris said: “This virus is not going away anytime soon, but we have to reopen businesses as safely as we can. We also have to protect those who are vulnerable, our high-risk community. They know who they are, and they’ll have to stay home for now.
“I’m paying attention to the science on this situation. There has to be a balance with those who can come out to restaurants to get them open again. We have to put things in perspective, being rational about it. Everyone should be wearing a mask when they go out. It’s a reminder — something serious is going on. We’re reopening in incremental steps. And if they have a cough when at home, they should stay home.”
Harris said restaurants may want to consider having prepackaged plastic-ware for customers who would prefer that, rather than use silverware that is being handled by restaurant staff members.
In Caroline County, Harris was accompanied by Del. Jeff Ghrist, R-36-Caroline.
Harris talked with business owners about how they’ve gotten through the crisis and what they may need going forward. Harris said knows restaurant owners are eager to get business rolling again and that towns on the Eastern Shore “all depend on anchor businesses — restaurants.”
“We’re over the hump, let’s get things going,” Harris said. “We’re trying to roll this ball uphill.”
In Greenboro, Tenchi Spanish American Kitchen owner Nick Wake said he has had to close his restaurant more than once during the stay-at-home order.
Wake closed for two weeks at the very beginning of the pandemic as he figured out how he’d manage his business during the crisis. And he had to shut down for a few weeks when he contracted COVID-19. He recovered within a week, but said he needed to make sure his family and staff were safe.
He said it helped that most of his staff was either family or high school and college students who weren’t relying on the income. Once the restaurant reopened, they’ve had to make adjustments to the menu to ensure profitability, and he said his customers were all understanding.
Tenchi isn’t currently equipped for outdoor seating, but Wake said he’s prepared to adapt. He wasn’t sure if he’d buy new tables and chairs to set up outside the building front or if he’d move existing tables and chairs outside from the restaurant’s dining area.
He said opening at 50% capacity might not work for his business. He said he told his wife he’d feel comfortable at 80% capacity.
“We do want traffic. We do want to reopen,” Wake said. “But we have to make sure it makes sense. We don’t want to stress our team out to where they hate their job now.”
Wake was thankful Harris visited his restaurant.
“We’re very appreciative to see people from the federal level visit us here, especially as a small business in a very small town,” Wake said. “We’re thankful to see that. It means a lot to us. We know that they care. It shows that they have a level of humility to come visit a very small (business). We’re a tiny business. By the definition of small business in the federal government, we’re a tiny business. And to have the support from a congressman, it means a lot to us.”
After Tenchi, Harris visited Harry’s on the Green in Denton, where he also checked in with nearby Joviality Gift Shop owner and Denton Mayor Abby McNinch.
Harry’s was closed throughout the pandemic. Owner Harry Wyre said his business wouldn’t have been profitable without alcohol sales to support the restaurant. They are opening for carryout at 3 p.m. Thursday, May 21.
Wyre is concerned about customers coming by for carryout and then going to eat nearby with a group, which Ghrist said could put law enforcement in a precarious situation.
Harry’s has plenty of space to support outdoor seating. They already have a back patio with tables and chairs. But Wyre’s main concern is liquor laws.
There are strict rules in place from the liquor board about taking alcohol a certain distance away from the establishments they were sold in. For Harry’s to take advantage of reopening with outdoor seating, those restrictions would need to be relaxed, he said.
While the restaurant has outdoor space, it’s not right out in front of the restaurant. The patio is down a short path behind the building. There’s more space beyond the patio, but it would be pointless if customers can’t take liquor out there, Wyre said.
Harris and Ghrist said they would work on getting those restrictions temporarily relaxed while social distancing restrictions remain in place.
Wyre said reopening during the crisis could create a financial predicament of spending money just to stay afloat.
“In order to survive, we may have to add more seats,” Wyre said. “To add more seats, it’ll cost more money.”
Reporter Seth Tow contributed to this story.