Md. restaurant owner criticizes state’s reopening plan, reflects on past year

It’s been a brutal year for the owners of Maryland restaurant McGinty’s Public House in downtown Silver Spring.

Co-owner Greg Whelan said that when they were forced to close a day before St. Patrick’s Day last March, the restaurant employed 43 staff members. Now, there are 15 on the job.

While eager to see a boost to business, Whelan is staunchly opposed to Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to lift COVID-19 restrictions on restaurants.

“I completely disagree with it,” Whelan said. “He has opened up restaurants across the state of Maryland when restaurant workers are not eligible to go get a vaccine.”

Whelan said the decision puts his staff at risk. “I hate being political; I try keeping my business out of politics, but this is people’s lives,” he said. “It’s very hard for me to encourage my employees to be excited about this. I’m not excited about it because we’re not vaccinated yet.”

Under Maryland’s vaccination guidelines, restaurant workers fall under Phase II of the plans for vaccinations. The state is currently vaccinating people who fall into Phase 1C.

Whelan also questioned the economic benefit of the change.

“Don’t get me wrong. I want to be reopened; I want to be able to rehire; I want to be able to make all my rent commitments. I want things to come back to where they were, but this is just too fast,” he said.

Given the need to keep customers socially distanced while dining, and the prohibition of allowing people to stand at a bar, Whelan said the effect would only take business from 25 to 50%. He added that the increase doesn’t bring restaurants back to where they were pre-pandemic.

He also blasted the lack of time given to allow local governments and restaurants to prepare for the change, saying he had neither the inventory nor the staff to handle the change that will go into effect Friday at 5 p.m.

“I just don’t understand why we couldn’t have waited another four to six weeks and gotten another 10, 15, 20% people vaccinated — including restaurant workers,” Whelan said.

Asked about the criticism of Hogan’s actions, the Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said in an email, “No industry is a monolith. There are going to be restaurant owners who may think it’s too much, and there are going to be some who feel keeping distancing doesn’t help them enough.”

Ricci said they have taken a balanced approach to ease capacity limits, while keeping masking and distancing.

“This day and age, there are always going to be supporters; there are always going to be critics. The governor has always sought to strike a balance,” Ricci said.

Surviving the last year

Despite the hits his business has taken over the past year, Whelan said McGinty’s is one of the lucky restaurants.

When they shifted to curbside pickup and delivery of meals, Whelan said, they found a welcome stabilizing effect.

His staff also went above and beyond to help out.

“We had one or two staff members who would volunteer hours here and there just to keep us going.”

The worst, Whelan explained, was having to let go of many of his employees, some of whom had worked at the restaurant for 15 years.

“It was horrible,” said Whelan, of the times when he had to break the news to staff members. “They don’t know where their rent is coming from or how they’re going to meet their bills, and you’re the person that is telling them ‘I’m sorry.'”

The public has been understanding, with many telling him how much they miss being able to gather at the restaurant designed to have the feel of an Irish pub. Since reopening, customer compliance with wearing masks regulations has been very good, according to Whelan.

“I would say 99% of the people are super-considerate. The tipping has been very generous, as well,” he said.

Imagining a time when everyone can stop wearing masks, and the pandemic recedes to a point where things feel like they did more than a year ago, Whelan reflected on what’s at the top of his to-do list.

“I want to have 2020’s St. Patrick’s Day!” He said with a laugh. “I just want to have a big party and be able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with someone without the fear of me getting them sick or them getting me sick.”

More Coronavirus News

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

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Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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