FAQs for Foodservice Establishments during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Revised February 1, 2021
This guidance is for foodservice establishments in Maryland, including restaurants, convenience and grocery stores, bars, nightclubs, banquet and catering halls, and other similar establishments that sell and/or serve food or beverages. Foodservice establishments must comply with the Governor’s executive orders, MDH directives and orders, as well as any applicable local orders. Additional resources are listed at the bottom.
If you have additional questions, please visit https://phpa.health.maryland.gov/oehfp/ofpchs/pages/home.aspx to submit your question using the Questions form and the Office of Food Protection staff will work to provide you an answer.
For questions on vaccine eligibility and distribution to foodservice establishment employees, please visit http://covidvax.maryland.gov/.
No, any employee who has symptoms of COVID-19 (fever, cough, shortness of breath, chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, and new loss of taste or smell) or was informed they were a close contact of someone with COVID-19 (or suspected of having COVID-19) may not return to work until they meet the CDC and MDH criteria for ending isolation or quarantine. While there are many things foodservice establishments can do to reduce the risk of transmission, there is always some risk in any environment with person to person contact. In order to protect the health and safety of all workers, as well as customers, foodservice establishments are required to direct employees who are sick or might have been exposed to the virus to stay home.
Foodservice establishments should develop, implement, and train workers on clear policies to reduce the spread of COVID-19, including:
- Hand hygiene
- Cleaning protocols, using EPA-approved products that are safe for food contact surfaces
- Daily screening process for workers, including CDC or MDH recommended health questions
- Use and disposal of personal protective equipment (PPE)
- Required use of face coverings unless it is not safe to do so
- Prohibition on working if sick or potentially exposed to COVID-19
Foodservice establishments are not required to close if an employee tests positive for COVID19, unless directed to do so by a State or local agency. They are also not required to report individual COVID-19 illnesses to the State or local health department. If the foodservice establishment is concerned about the possibility of transmission within their facility, they may contact their local health department to determine if additional measures could be taken.
Foodservice establishments are required to clean and disinfect each table between each seating in accordance with CDC and MDH guidelines, using cleaning products that meet the criteria of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for use against COVID-19. Check the product label guidelines for if and where these disinfectant products are safe and recommended for use in foodservice establishments. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for all cleaning and disinfection products (e.g., concentration, application method and contact time, etc.). Clean soft goods (such as napkins and tablecloths) after each use by removing them from the table, storing in a tote, and laundering in the warmest appropriate water.
The CDC is encouraging routine environmental cleaning for businesses. Click here for more guidance and information. Additional sanitation steps are not recommended in the event of an employee that appears ill. The CDC provides general cleaning and disinfection guidelines here. The FDA has emphasized the need to maintain clean and sanitized facilities, including food contact surfaces, and food facilities may want to consider a more frequent cleaning schedule.
Foodservice Establishment Operations
The Governor’s executive order (21-01-28-01) rescinded this requirement. Foodservice establishments are not required to close to the public between the hours of 10 PM and 6 AM, effective February 1, 2021.
Face coverings are required for all employees and guests, including children older than 5 years of age, except while consuming food or beverages.
For exceptions to this requirement, please see Executive Order 21-01-28-01. Customers with disabilities who are unable to wear a face covering must be provided with an opportunity to receive the same goods and services as customers without disabilities. For more information, please see the FAQ on Face Coverings.
Examples of reasonable accommodation include, but are not limited to, providing take-out, curbside pick-up, or delivery in lieu of seated dining. Provide signage with ADA-accessible ways to contact the facility to request reasonable accommodations. Do not require proof or documentation of an individual’s disability.
Staff are only required to use gloves to prevent bare-hand contact with ready to eat foods.
In the Governor’s Executive Order 21-01-28-01, face coverings include cloth face coverings and full-face shields. Cloth face coverings are recommended by both CDC and the Maryland Department of Health to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Face shields are acceptable face coverings. However, MDH strongly recommends, but does not require, also wearing a cloth face covering if using a face shield.
Employees or staff that cannot wear a face covering due to a disability may request reasonable accommodations in accordance with the employer’s disability policies and procedures (ADA Title I – https://www.ada.gov/ada_title_I.htm).
For more information, please see the FAQs on Face Coverings.
Facilities may adopt policies requiring customers to continuously wear a face covering or to not consume food or beverages while within the facility, even if the food or beverage was purchased within the facility (such as a coffee shop located within a retail or grocery store). If consuming food and beverages is allowed within the facility (or designated area of the facility), the face covering can be removed briefly to take a sip or bite but cannot be removed for the entire duration while in the facility.
Dinner theaters and other live entertainment at foodservice establishments must adhere to the capacity restrictions for foodservice establishments or theaters, whichever is more stringent (Sections III(f) and (j) of the executive order, respectfully).
Patrons must be seated at least 6 feet away from each other, except for households or groups seated together. This is the distance between patrons – tables may need to be spaced further apart based on the seating arrangement. Patrons must be seated at least 6 feet away from each other in the bar area.
Every other booth must be closed if six feet distancing between patrons cannot be maintained. Facilities may install a 6-foot plexiglass shield (or similar impermeable physical barrier) between booths. The plexiglass shield must be able to prevent persons in adjacent booths from any physical contact while either seated or standing (height of at least 6 feet from the floor to the top of the shield).
No more than ten people may be seated together as a group at a table.
Establish a six foot marking system to visually demonstrate the recommended distancing at all locations where customers and staff congregate, including immediately outside the facility where lines may form and at carry-out pick up areas. If the bar area is used to fulfill carry-out orders, designate an area that is at least six feet away from seated patrons at the bar.
The capacity may be limited in order to maintain physical distancing. Outdoor seating is not limited so long as physical distancing requirements are met and the maximum capacity of the outdoor structure is not exceeded. If operating as an outdoor venue associated with an event, capacity may be limited to 50%. Please review the current Governor’s Order for capacity limits on specific venues.
The use of physical barriers is not prohibited in the dining areas of foodservice establishments in Maryland. However, the use of physical barriers (or other devices or technologies) does not change the facility’s obligation to adhere to all state and local regulations and orders applicable to foodservice establishments, including, but not limited to, overall seating capacity limits and ensuring customers are seated at least 6 feet away from each other, except for households or a group seated together (MDH Order 2020-11-17-03). Outdoor booths may, as an alternative to closing every other booth, install a plexiglass shield (or similar impermeable physical barrier) between booths. If you are installing ultraviolet lightemitting devices, physical barriers, or making other significant changes to your foodservice establishment, MDH recommends contacting your local health department to determine if a plan review is necessary.
Overhead tents, canopies, and coverings may be used so long as they do not constitute an “indoor area,” as defined in COMAR 10.19.04.02B(9):
“Indoor area” means all space in a structure or building with a ceiling that is enclosed on all sides by any combination of permanent or temporary walls, windows, or doorways, whether open or closed, or other physical barriers extending from floor to the ceiling.
Contact your local department of public works and/or local law enforcement to inquire about road closures. Do not set up outdoor seating on any public space (including parks, public parking spaces, roads, or sidewalks) without the express permission of your local government authorities.
The Governor’s Executive Order 21-01-28-01 does not prohibit restaurants, bars, and social clubs from adding new outdoor seating. If you are adding outdoor seating, check with your local health department and other local authorities first to ensure compliance with all requirements, including any applicable licenses or permits. Local jurisdictions may expand opportunities for outdoor dining by allowing for the closing of streets and expanding into parking lots and public outdoor spaces.
No, food may not be served in a buffet format where the customers are serving themselves. This includes, but is not limited to, hot/cold bars, salad bars, soup bars, and toppings bars.
Food may be served in a buffet-style line or station (also called cafeteria style) when:
- food is served directly by the employee,
- a procedure is in place to ensure customers in line are at least 6 feet away from each other and wearing a face covering,
- a barrier is provided to protect the serving employee(s) from the customers if social distancing cannot be maintained, and
- the food is taken immediately to a table to be eaten
Food and beverages may not be served within a foodservice establishment to customers or guests for consumption not at a seated table (this does not apply to carry-out services). Foodservice establishments should provide signage of proper procedures for customers, including face covering use when not at their table eating or drinking and visiting the restrooms. Signage should be provided in appropriate languages.
Catered foodservice events are allowed. Caterers must comply with the applicable occupancy restrictions, social distancing requirements, and table limits for the venue. Please see Executive Order 21-01-28-01 and any other applicable local or Executive Orders in effect for that type of venue.
All venues are strongly recommended to follow the most current guidance from CDC and MDH regarding social distancing, including avoidance of large gatherings and crowded places. In addition, please also check with the local health department for any additional restrictions or requirements.
Yes. Caterers must follow the same requirements for serving food as all other foodservice establishments, including not serving food in a self-serve buffet format. Instead, consider serving food plated, cafeteria style, or to a table family style.
This is not a requirement in the Executive Order. The Department recommends that when possible, employees should place the table settings after the party is seated and wear gloves when removing foodservice items and wash their hands immediately afterwards. Foodservice establishments should limit multi-use items, especially if they are difficult to clean and sanitize between use. Provide condiments in either single use containers or disinfected manufacturer packaging, and use menu boards, disposable menus, or mobile apps for ordering. If a facility uses reusable menus, they should be cleaned and sanitized between each customer’s use.
Yes. Pre-packaged foods may be sold in grab-and-go or display cases to eliminate the need for shared serving utensils. For foods not prepackaged, deli tissue or other food grade single-use service items must be provided. High touch surfaces should be cleaned frequently, and disinfecting wipes can be provided to customers. Provide single-use deli tissues, napkins, etc. for customers to use when opening displays, handling carafes and other items at beverage stations, or for other high-touch surfaces that cannot be eliminated. Consider providing signage for customers on how to safely serve themselves.
Vendors should contact the local health department for information regarding temporary events and temporary foodservice facility licensure. All events should follow CDC and MDH guidance regarding COVID-19 precautions.
Yes. Executive Order 21-01-28-01 does not prohibit food truck operation. However, food truck operators must be careful to avoid clustering multiple food trucks together, provide instructions for social distancing for their customers, maintain social distancing in any line that results from their foodtruck (contact local law enforcement for help if the line tends to spill over onto public sidewalks), reduce the opportunity for gatherings of more than 10 people, and prevent crowds. Example signs and additional resources may be found here.
Yes. Executive Order 21-01-28-01 does not prohibit cottage food business operation.
Yes. Farmers markets are allowed to operate. Guidance and requirements for the safe operation of farmers markets can be found on the Maryland Department of Agriculture website: https://news.maryland.gov/mda/category/covid-19/
Maryland Department of Health Office of Food Protection:
Governor Hogan’s COVID-19 Response:
Maryland Department of Health COVID-19:
MDH Directives and Orders:
Visit the FDA’s website for more information and FAQs for food products:
- Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Frequently Asked Questions
- Food Safety and the Coronavirus Disease 2019
- Retail Food Protection: Employee Health and Personal Hygiene Handbook
Additional information for retail food establishments, including a fact sheet in English and Spanish, can be found on the National Restaurant Association’s website:
Guidance from CDC for businesses:
Guidance from WHO for businesses:
Additional information for businesses on planning for and responding to coronavirus disease is available on Maryland’s Business Express website:
Resources for businesses, including example signage:
Maryland Back to Business (guidance and best practices)