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'A skeleton crew' | Despite loosening restrictions, Montgomery County restaurant struggles remain

On Friday, the county increased restaurant capacity from 25% to 50%.

BETHESDA, Md. — The road to recovery rolls on in Montgomery County, but some say there's still a long way to go.

As of Friday, restaurants may now operate at 50% capacity. That's a jump from the previous cap of 25%.

But struggles for some restaurants are far from over, especially for those with smaller dining areas.

Tastee Diner in Bethesda is a prime example. It's a small space with a big heart.

"This is like a home away from home," said longtime-cook Allen Snowden. "We're kind of like a family."

But now, that small space is a thorn in the business' side.

Despite Montgomery County increasing capacity restrictions from 25% to 50%, parties still have to be seated six feet apart, according to Montgomery County Council President Tom Hucker's communications director, Genevieve Kurtz.

RELATED: Montgomery County restaurant manager reacts as indoor dining restrictions loosen

With space already tight, Snowden worries Tastee won't have the square footage to take full advantage of the capacity increase.

"We're only running a skeleton crew right now because we can't bring everybody back because there's just not enough business," he said.

It's the latest challenge in a financially bruising year.

Snowden said Tastee lost over "half a million dollars" over the last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He estimates about 25 employees at the Bethesda restaurant were furloughed in the spring of 2020.

Still, there are now signs of progress

After watching restrictions ease and getting his own vaccine, Miklos Gaal, a self-described regular customer, was back at the restaurant early Saturday morning.

It was his first time there in over a year.

"I want to become loyal to Tastee again," he said. "I mean, I can't imagine how the staff has coped."

Another regular, Mario Bruno, was there too.

"I'm born and raised here," said Bruno. "I've been coming here for 45 years."

Snowden hopes more keep coming. And he hopes Montgomery County virus restrictions keep loosening.

"Go out and get your vaccination," said Snowden. "I'm in line to get mine. I think the sooner we get it, the more we can actually all be together and come back as one."

Montgomery County's capacity rules are stricter than Maryland's statewide policy.

Earlier this month Gov. Larry Hogan announced the removal of all capacity limits at Maryland restaurants and some other businesses, though the six foot distancing rule remains in place.

RELATED: Hogan lifts restrictions: Capacity limits removed at Maryland restaurants, bars, stores, churches

Montgomery County decided to keep some of its local capacity restrictions in place.

County Council President Tom Hucker said in a written statement:

“The Montgomery County Council, acting as the Board of Health, continues to prioritize public health. With a slight rise in case counts across the region, our top priority is to keep our students, teachers, and staff safe in a partial return to in-person learning. We are eager to reopen dining and retail fully once more residents are vaccinated and it is safe to do so.”

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