City Paper is not for tourists
“Let me sum up D.C.’s reopening plans from the perspective of a restaurateur: we are fucked,” Ian Hilton, the man behind El Rey, Chez Billy Sud, and many other restaurants in the city, tweeted Friday. His colorful comments came in response to yesterday’s reopening recommendations from Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s ReOpen DC advisory group.
To recap, these are the suggestions for each stage for what the group refers to as “restaurants.” The first stage could kick off as early as next Friday, May.
Stage One: Outdoor service only, with physical distancing and safeguards; no buffets; no parties greater than six people; no standing or sitting at bars; and customers asked to provide names and contact information upon arrival.
Stage Two: Outside service, plus inside service of up to 50 percent capacity, with physical distancing and safeguards; sitting at the bar six feet apart is permitted, but you still can’t stand at the bar; no parties greater than 10 people and parties of more than six people must be from the same household; buffets allowed if employees serve customers; and customers asked to provide names and contact information upon arrival.
Stage Three: Outdoor service, plus indoor service of up to 50 percent capacity, with physical distancing and safeguards; restaurants can submit requests to expand their capacities; and customers asked to provide names and contact information upon arrival.
“Bars” and “nightclubs,” according to the advisory group’s recommendations, shouldn’t open until stage three. And at that point, they would only be able to welcome five customers per 1,000 feet, not exceeding 50 percent capacity. The city is working out how to classify different hospitality businesses, likely based on how substantial their food sales are.
The restaurant and bar industry has now had a full 24 hours to review the recommendations. As city officials prepare to turn recommendations into policies, City Paper asked restaurant and bar workers and owners to share their reactions, suggestions, and questions. One overarching theme is a lack of nuance and understanding of the hospitality industry. Owners and workers cite the fact that they weren’t well represented on the ReOpen DC committee on restaurants and food as a possible reason. Here are their lightly edited responses:
Nicole Marquis, the founder of HipCityVeg, has concerns about transportation. “With many restaurants reopening, expanding hours, and hiring back employees, there is a challenge with getting employees home. In D.C., Metro now shuts down at 9 p.m., whereas in cities like Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, subway systems stay open past midnight. Most restaurants make the majority of their income at dinner time, and after closing and thoroughly cleaning stores, employees can’t head home until 10 or 11 p.m. This means that employees have to pay for private transportation such as ride shares, which few can afford, or their employers have to find another way to get them home.”
She’s currently paying for rides for all closing employees or piecing together other solutions. It costs her about $80 per day. “We just can’t afford that for long with sales down 40 to 50 percent,” she says. “When can we expect Metro’s hours to get back to normal to accommodate our workers and customers?”
Full Metro service isn’t expected to return until next spring, according to Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld. There were pre-virus plans to restore late night service on July 1, but they’ve tabled.
Bartender Laura Pacholkiw says “RIP” to the D.C. restaurant industry and is feeling defeated. “We had a good run, guys. The decision to exclude restaurant workers from the advisory committee is so painfully obvious here. Clearly the people who wrote this bullshit have zero idea how bars and restaurants work. I’d say it’s time to start listening to the actual fucking restaurant workers for once but I feel like I always say that and it just falls on deaf ears.”
SeanMike, a blogger and former bartender, is confused by the recommendation in stage two that allows restaurants to seat patrons at their bars, but only if they’re six feet apart. “Does that mean I have to sit six feet from my girlfriend? Or, can we sit together and other folks have to sit that far apart from us?”
A restaurant manager, who asked to remain anonymous, is scratching her head about the stage two recommendation that suggests restaurant shouldn’t seat parties greater than 10 people and if a party has more than six people, they should be from the same household. “It’s complicated. How do you enforce and verify that?” She also worries about enforcing mask wearing. “Does the city have our back?” she wonders.
Former bartender and server Caitlin Schiavoni is still tapped into the local hospitality industry. “There is no way tipped workers will be making what they were until phase four and I haven’t heard a thing about expanded unemployment or a plan to address that massive loss in income to so many workers. There is just no way places can stay afloat with this income coming in. And the five people per 1000 square feet—what is even the point of opening?!”
Paul Vivari, who owns Showtime, is frustrated with the vague classification system that could potentially keep his businesses closed until phase three. And even then Showtime would barely be able to seat any customers. He questions why the city is bothering to make a distinction between bars and restaurants since “their own departments do not.” The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs does not formally distinguish between bars and restaurants.
“Showtime, and our sister bar Neptune Room, both were inspected by DCRA and the health department as if we were a restaurant, with the same rules and requirements as restaurants. Showtime wasn’t allowed to open until we installed a commercial grade garbage disposal. Same for installing a commercial grease trap at Neptune Room. Both were required by the city so we could obtain our restaurant business license. And now the city decides the business license they themselves issued to us, and all the hoops we jumped through to pass inspections, is moot because now they’ve decided we’re just a bar now?”
The Alcohol Beverage Regulation Administration, on the other hand, granted both bars a tavern license. “The city should not be going by ABRA’s classifications, an independent council, and should rely on how the city’s own permitting center labeled these businesses,” Vivari says. “Seems like when it’s time for permitting, billing, and inspections, the city has no problem blanketing all alcohol-serving establishments as restaurants. Now that the entire industry is in trouble and desperately needs help, is now really the time to start differentiating between the two?”
Sloppy Mama’s offered on Twitter to supply any bar with barbecue should they need to procure enough food to shift their license or other classification to allow them to reopen earlier.
A bartender and server named Mack has an idea to hasten customer turnover at bars so they can get more customers through their doors with the severely limited capacity recommended in stage three. “Limit each bar guest to an hour visit max. It might sound lame, but it gets people to bar hop a little and leaves the bar with more business. You could literally take bar reservations and have the first round ready so when they sit, boom it’s in front of them already! You could build a three-course cocktail and food pairing.” Columbia Room already does something similar. “This could be a positive game changer,” Mack says.
A nightclub owner who asked to remain anonymous is flabbergasted by the difference in recommended capacity limits between entertainment venues and nightclubs. According to the reopening recommendations, indoor venues including “entertainment, arenas, and theaters” can host 50 people in stage two and 250 people in stage three. Meanwhile nightclubs can’t open until stage three and then only at the same limited capacity as bars.
A bar owner named Chris is in favor of turning 18th Street NW in Adams Morgan into a pedestrian-only zone. “We need a lot more financial and other assistance if we’re going to be forced to stay closed or operate in otherwise loss-making circumstances,” he says. The idea is currently being floated, according to Washingtonian.
The owners and managers of Across The Pond Restaurant & Pub shared an email they’ve sent to Bowser and the D.C. Council. The Irish pub doesn’t have any outdoor space and worries about being left behind, along with some of their neighbors. “This is something that the 15+ businesses on the 1700 block of Connecticut Avenue NW, southbound side, do not have access to. We continue to ask that you look at options to close streets, and to do so as soon as possible to give us the chance to open during phase one. We understand that there will be licenses to obtain and requirements to meet and enforce.”
They’ve tabulated that the seven restaurants on their block have lost more than $2.5 million in revenue due to the impact of COVID-19. They’ve personally lost more than $450,000. “If we can only open with limited indoor dining capacity, we expect sales to be approximately $1,000 per day—that’s compared to $3,000 per day for weekdays and $5,000 per weekend day, before COVID-19.”