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WAMU 88.5:Maryland Comptroller Franchot Calls For Outdoor Restaurant Seating On Memorial Day Weekend

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot thinks restaurants have been overlooked by Gov. Larry Hogan’s Phase 1 reopening guidelines.

While Mother Nature may dampen weekend plans for some hoping to get outdoors, Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot is hoping for a Memorial Day miracle. He’s asking Gov. Larry Hogan to allow restaurants to reopen for outdoor service.

“I’m suggesting that we continue wearing masks, washing hands and keeping six feet social distance,” Franchot said. “But allow these restaurants — that are right now only allowed to engage in takeout — to do open-air where they have a patio, chairs and tables on a sidewalk, or even on a street where the traffic has been diverted.”

Franchot says the state’s restaurants are on the verge of extinction with 40% of them projected to close permanently because of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout. On top of that, Franchot says the state’s long-term economic forecast doesn’t look promising. But he says there are ways for the state to start providing relief to some businesses now. On Thursday, Franchot launched a campaign on Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #TakeItOuside to garner support for opening restaurants.

At the start of today’s meeting of the Board of Public Works, I called for the State of Maryland to begin the process of allowing our restaurants to serve customers OUTSIDE on patios, sidewalks and even streets that are closed for vehicular traffic.

— Comptroller Peter Franchot (@peterfranchot) May 20, 2020

In a statement, Hogan responded to Franchot’s request Friday saying he remained committed to small businesses and continues “to work closely with our restaurant industry to develop plans for reopening.”

According to Hogan’s three-part plan for reopening the state, restaurants are expected to resume dine-in services with limited capacity in Phase 2, which requires no new spikes in cases in the state.

WAMU spoke with Franchot to get a look at the state’s economy and what to expect in the coming months and years ahead. The interview was edited for brevity and length.

What are your thoughts on Gov. Hogan’s three-phased reopening plan? Do you think it’s not fast enough or too slow?

I’ve said all over the state that I trust [Hogan] as far as the overall structure that he has to prioritize people’s health. I agree with him that without the public health restrictions we can’t reopen the economy. It’s not an opposition to reopening the economy. You have to have both, but in this instance, I think you can very safely allow outdoor serving by restaurants and it needs to be done immediately.

The projections on revenue loss you had just a month ago showed a worst-case scenario of $2.8 billion in losses for the state — that turned out to not be as bad. More recently, you said the range is somewhere between $925 million and $1.1 billion. Do you have a better handle now on where the state’s economy is going?

No, we don’t unfortunately. All we know is that the pandemic is going to have an enormous negative consequence on the state’s economy. The latest estimates are that approximately $1 billion have to be reduced from the state’s budget in the next six weeks. And then from there, we’re talking $2 to $3 billion [in losses] on an annual basis. It’s a bit better than the previous estimate, that predicted the shutdown would last through June 30th.

Here’s the reality. As we speak, 600,000 Maryland individuals have filed for unemployment claims in the last eight weeks. That is a stunning number. It will take us years to rehire those people and get back to normal.

Can you project today how long it will take the state to get back to where it was before this crisis?

I don’t want to sugarcoat things for people. We are in something equivalent to the 1930s depression.

We are going to go into a 4-or 5-year period where we’re going to be scrambling to just pay the basics. I just think all of those big expensive projects that were well-intentioned, they all have to be reconsidered because the money is not going to be there.

The governor recently vetoed funding to settle that 14-year lawsuit between the state and it’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities and funding for a new school funding formula and recommendations. Do you think that was the right choice?

Once we get back into operation, there are going to be significant cuts and surgery done of the existing budget without those new additions. I don’t mean to be all doom and gloom. I’m not. I’m very optimistic about the future for the state of Maryland, but we’re entering into a brave new world as far as fiscal policies.

Unlike the federal government, we have to have a balanced budget and right now, frankly, a lot of the programs we’ve funded in Maryland and over the years are outdated. Just look at schools for example. I’m a big fan of school construction, but I don’t think schools are going to be constructed in the future with large cafeterias and large gathering auditoriums until people feel comfortable that we’ve got this pandemic and future pandemics under control.

You previously said that 2020 wasn’t the year for tax increases or increased spending. Do you stand by that now?

I don’t know what the legislature will decide, but I absolutely think that taking money out of people’s pockets, out of the pockets of small businesses, by increasing taxes is a catastrophically bad idea and bad timing.

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