Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The ReOpen DC advisory group today issued recommendations regarding how the District should return to normalcy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It suggests three stages of reopening, the first of which could kick off as early as May 29 if there aren’t any spikes in community spread of the virus. Mayor Muriel Bowser anticipates making an announcement Tuesday about the status of the stay-at-home order that’s currently in place through June 8. 

“It is not an on-and-off switch,” the mayor said at today’s press conference. “We will not be able to go back to life as we enjoyed it in February, but we are incrementally adding activities back in our lives, which we all miss and are all eager to get back to.”

The ReOpen DC advisors recommend restaurants with outdoor areas be allowed to return to on-premise service soonest, as part of stage one. Bars and nightclubs, according to the recommendations, shouldn’t open until stage three. Everything is subject to change based on additional data and feedback. 

The following are the mayor-appointed advisory group’s recommendations for restaurants

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. 

Safeguards include using single-use utensils and condiments; sanitizing food-contact areas every two hours; food handlers wearing masks and gloves; and using online reservation and ordering systems whenever possible.

Cork Wine Bar & Market co-owner Diane Gross says the guidelines are reasonable from a public health perspective. She wants to keep her customers and staff safe. That said, Gross says many restaurants don’t have outdoor spaces or their outdoor spaces are quite small.

“We will have to keep doing what we are doing or pivot in some way to increase our outdoor capacity, while still maintaining social distancing and safety protocols,” she says. They’ve tried everything from to-go food to family dinners to meal kits and alcohol delivery. Stage one, she emphasizes, isn’t a sustainable solution for operating a business like hers. 

“It would be helpful to know when the next phases are likely to happen, so we can do that planning,” Gross says. “We have to reimagine traditional models because we can’t survive at 50 percent.”

Kathy Hollinger, the CEO of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, is a chair of the ReOpen DC committee on restaurants and food. She expects more specific guidelines down the line. “Knowing we’re going into phase one, where there’s no indoor dining, when we get to indoor dining, there will be further guidance on how this is operationalized,” she says. The mayor’s office says it will be releasing a reopening checklist for business owners tomorrow—including guidance on what to do if an employee becomes ill.

In addition to sharing a recommended plan for each stage, the committee on restaurants and food tabulated some “big ideas” they plan to push for. They include continuing take-out and delivery of alcohol; allowing some flexibility when it comes to food establishment licensing; and relaxing criteria for outdoor operations, including the ability to expand their outdoor seating areas. The D.C. Council is currently refining a proposal to help more hospitality industry businesses to grow their outdoor footprints.

The recommendations are the most limiting for bars and nightclubs. A page in the full reopening guide says they shouldn’t be permitted to reopen until stage three, at which point they will only be able to welcome five customers per 1,000 feet, not exceeding 50 percent capacity. Think of how many people small bars like Showtime or All Souls could seat. 

Derek Brown, a partner at Shaw bar Columbia Room, says many of the recommendations make sense, even if they’re not feasible or ideal for some businesses. “We need to see the ‘big ideas” put in action, especially expanding outdoor areas,” he says. “If you don’t have an outdoor area, you’re all but shut during phase one. If you have a small restaurant during phase two, 50 percent capacity will likely cost you more to open than to stay shut. We need extra space and the solution is to expand outdoors.”

Bars, he says, “are completely screwed,” despite the fact between 2008 and 2016 there was a 75 percent jump in bar licenses, making them a huge contributor to the local economy.

“D.C. is a bar town, period,” Brown continues. “Everyone knows that, but the Council and mayor at this point. Bars had zero percent representation on the ReOpen DC advisory council, leading taxation without representation to ring completely hollow when it comes to ReOpen DC.” 

Technically, José Andrés is a chair of the committee and owns barmini, but no other bar owners or bartenders were represented on the ReOpen DC committee on restaurants and food. In fact, the committee largely excludes hospitality industry stakeholders. 

“Many bars in D.C. serve food and have tables—they should be included in phase one,” Brown says. “In phase two, restaurants can open their bars but, for some inexplicable reason, bars with food can’t open theirs? I’d like to hear the logic behind that one. It makes no sense at all.”  

One of the biggest questions going forward is how the advisory group and the District will define a “bar.” There is no corresponding liquor license at the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration—you’re either a nightclub, a tavern, or a restaurant. Andrew Kline, an attorney who represents RAMW and restaurants, sat on the ReOpen DC committee on restaurants and food. He says they’re working through the details with the mayor’s office when it comes to properly categorizing hospitality industry businesses for the purposes of reopening.

“If you’re a restaurant you’d fall into that category for the purposes of phases one and two,” he explains. “Businesses that have substantial food components would be included with those who have restaurant licenses.” That means some “bars” that have tavern licenses could potentially be included in phases one and two if the mayor’s office enacts the advisory group’s recommendations as they stand today. Nightclubs, not so much. 

“When epidemiologists and health officials look at phase one and phase two they’re looking at where you go to eat food, not necessarily where you go to drink alcohol and socialize,” Kline says.