Is MoCo an Anti-Restaurant Island?

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Restaurant Association of Maryland (RAM) has gone on the warpath against Montgomery County, claiming that its restrictions against indoor dining have made it “an island all by themselves.” RAM points out that MoCo is now the only jurisdiction in the region to prohibit indoor dining and is seeking to have that policy overturned.

Are they right?

RAM blasts MoCo on Facebook.

RAM bases its case on MoCo’s declining COVID statistics. Its president told WTOP, “When you’re really looking at all the metrics that Montgomery County claims to be watching, we see good news and good signs.” And it’s true that the county has seen improvement on some measures according to its COVID dashboard.

RAM notes MoCo’s declining COVID stats.

But there are two caveats here. First, any improvements are coming from huge peaks. For example, the county’s COVID case rate has been falling for a couple weeks but it is still higher than it was in the spring, when restaurants were last shut down for indoor service.

MoCo’s COVID dashboard shows recent progress in case rate but it’s still high.

Second, RAM is comparing MoCo to other jurisdictions, alleging that the county is unusually harsh on restaurants. Well, if MoCo were unusually overrun by COVID, it might be justified in being more restrictive. Let’s test that.

The table below shows five data points from two sources. Johns Hopkins University compares counties across the nation on 14-day case rate per 100,000 residents, inpatient occupancy and intensive care unit (ICU) occupancy. The table shows how MoCo compares to twelve other major jurisdictions in the region on these measures. The State of Maryland tracks 7-day case rate per 100,000 residents and test positivity rate for its 24 local jurisdictions. The table shows how MoCo compares to six other large jurisdictions in the state on these measures.

On the three stats tracked by Johns Hopkins, MoCo is above average on inpatient occupancy and below average on ICU occupancy and 14-day case rate. On the two stats tracked by the State of Maryland, MoCo ranks 5th out of 7 peer jurisdictions. In other words, MoCo is not an outlier. It has not been hit unusually hard by COVID in comparison to the rest of the D.C.-Baltimore region.

That calls into question whether the county’s now-unique prohibition on indoor dining is justified. It also occurs in the historic context of the restaurant industry’s long-time frustration with the county’s unique wholesale monopoly on liquor sales, which is not currently the industry’s biggest problem but has nonetheless damaged the county’s reputation among restaurateurs. MoCo should consider revising its restaurant restrictions if it continues to make progress on its COVID metrics. If not, its reputation as a tough place to operate restaurants will only continue to grow.