County May Extend Alcohol Curfew With ‘Severe Consequences’ for Health Violations

Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security Director Dr. Earl Stoddard.

In early August, Montgomery County mandated that restaurants and bars can not sell alcohol for on-premise consumption after 10 p.m. Now the county is considering letting establishments extend that to midnight if they agree to certain guidelines. 

The directive went into effect Aug. 5 after Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security Director Dr. Earl Stoddard said in July that restaurants at night are of particular concern when it came to COVID-19 compliance. He said the problem is greater during the after-dinner period when restaurants operate more like traditional bars. Food service establishments can still sell alcohol for carry-out after 10 p.m., an exception made during the pandemic. 

During a county council meeting Tuesday, Stoddard said before the 10 p.m. limit was enacted the county received 30-50 calls weekly about noncompliance with health guidelines at restaurants, and about 15-20 of those would be complaints during late night hours. Since the rule went into effect there has been a “precipitous drop” in calls received about restaurants, Stoddard said. He said there was even a 3-4 week period following the new rule when the county found no COVID-19 violations, however three citations were given to restaurants this past weekend for violating face mask rules. MyMCMedia reached out to the county to find out which restaurants were cited. 

Stoddard said the three establishments cited were essentially “operating as if the face covering ordinance did not exist.” Still, he said the county will soon be ready to present a program for restaurants to serve alcohol on the premises until midnight. A draft is expected to be finalized later this week, Stoddard said, but it will likely require an executive order modification before it is able to go into effect. 

It would be an opt-in program restaurants can sign up for. To qualify, they must have staff members working for the sole purpose of enforcing COVID-19 rules. Stoddard said any restaurants that violate COVID-19 rules while participating in the program will experience serious consequences. He emphasized no bar-crowding is allowed and people must be seated while eating and drinking. 

“If we have this extended period of time where we do allow alcohol sales it will come with severe consequences for failure to live up to the expectations… up to and including revocation of their liquor license or their food service license depending on the nature of the violations that occur thereafter, if they occur, hopefully they don’t,” Stoddard said. 

The first thing the county can do if restaurants don’t follow the program’s rules is set the establishment back to a 10 p.m. on-premise alcohol curfew. That would cost restaurants more money than a $500 citation, Stoddard said. 

Councilmember Evan Glass said he was fully supportive of expanding guidelines to help small businesses, but only if people are able to follow rules. He said it was dumbfounding that the county is considering extending alcohol sales when some restaurants aren’t even following mask orders, like the three Stoddard said were cited this weekend.  

“Here we are today talking about expanding services past 10 o’clock for alcoholic consumption and there are still restaurants that aren’t doing simple things like having their staff wear masks,” Glass said. 

“It’s dumbfounding, quite frankly, and so we need everyone to work together so we can expand and open up in a safe way.”

Councilmember Hans Riemer said he has grave concerns. 

“I just think it’s very difficult to actually control. I think we all know that you set up one framework and the actual behavior is typically different. This is one area where the more you drink the less you follow rules. It just seems very shaky to me,” Riemer said. He said he looks forward to getting more information about the program. 

Councilmember Andrew Friedson said he feels differently from his colleagues and thinks the program will make restaurants more COVID-19 compliant. 

“I think that the willingness of the businesses themselves to hire a dedicated person, who does nothing other than making sure that the enforcement is happening to add to the county’s enforcement efforts, will actually show greater compliance, not less,” Friedson said. 

Eric Heckman, an owner of Caddies On Cordell in Bethesda, testified at Tuesday’s meeting in support of extending the curfew. He said Caddies is serious about following public health guidelines like social distancing and no one enters the establishment without a temperature scan and face mask.

Heckman said he has four security guards who monitor who enters Caddies but is willing to add more employees who solely enforce COVID-19 rules. He even said he would be okay with county personnel or police officers on the premises if it means the alcohol curfew can be extended. 

“We are willing to add and have suggested to the people involved in looking at the expansion to add additional employees, and even if they are county employees or police, we are willing to add even more at our expense with the opportunity to try to keep out business going,” Heckman said. 

Also at the council meeting, members approved an updated executive order that goes into effect Tuesday at 5 p.m. The order re-emphasizes that indoor dining is limited to 50% capacity, increases religious gatherings capacity, removes face shields as qualifying for a face covering and says children under 18 don’t need to wear masks while playing sports.

The new rule for religious gatherings: gathering size “shall be determined by dividing the total square footage of the worship space by 50, however total number of individuals shall not exceed 40% of permitted occupancy.”

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About Maryam Shahzad

Maryam is a reporter with Montgomery Community Media. She graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019 with a bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism. Previously, she was an intern with MCM. She can be reached at mshahzad@mymcmedia.org or on Twitter @maryam_mcm.

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