Crispy spring rolls at Nam-Viet in Clarendon
Crispy spring rolls at Nam-Viet in Clarendon Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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“It’s like opening a peeing section in a pool,” says Ian Boden, the owner of The Shack—a small destination restaurant in Staunton, Virginia. “The truth is, well-to-do people in D.C. are going to come to Virginia as soon as it opens. With all of our guests coming from D.C., it unnecessarily exposes my staff.”

The District and most northern Virginia zip codes have a higher rate of COVID-19 infection than most parts of the commonwealth, but that didn’t stop Governor Ralph Northam from initially declaring on May 4 that restaurants could reopen for dine-in service as early as May 15. The move was the first in a series of evolving directives that changed multiple times over the course of two weeks. 

Northam walked back his timeline in a May 8 press conference, when he revealed official details about phase one of Virginia’s reopening plan. Restaurants with outdoor areas can seat customers outside at 50 percent capacity starting May 15. Phase one could last as little as two weeks, according to Northam, who said phase two would allow restaurants to seat customers in dining rooms in limited numbers.

“I know some communities may choose to go more slowly, particularly northern Virginia,” Northam hedged. “Phase one is a floor, not a ceiling. Local governments can consult with our administration about stricter regulations.” 

Elected officials of the five largest localities in northern Virginia—including Arlington County, Fairfax County, and the City of Alexandria—penned a letter to Northam over the weekend, explaining that local health officials do not believe the threshold metrics are near where they need to be to enter phase one. Enough testing or contact tracing hasn’t occurred, and hospitalization rates haven’t decreased. 

In response, Northam pushed back the launch of phase one for the northern Virginia region until May 28. His executive order published Tuesday says restaurants are to remain closed to dine-in guests until then. 

Even with the two-week delay, it’s likely restaurants across the Potomac will be permitted to open their dining rooms before the District, with Maryland close behind. Mayor Muriel Bowser said at her May 8 press conference that “it makes no sense to open restaurants when people are still dying.” 

The D.C. hospitality industry is watching closely as restaurant owners and employees in Virginia consider the high-stakes situation and weigh how they’ll respond to the challenges of reopening. When the time comes, the District will have to decide whether to emulate or avoid the strategies of nearby jurisdictions, including those in the commonwealth.

“It’s hard to separate everything out emotionally,” Boden says. His 26-seat restaurant received a three-star review in the Washington Postweeks before D.C., Maryland, and Virginia closed dining rooms in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s anxious to get back to work, but he also agonizes over the public health ramifications of operating during an active pandemic. 

“There’s a lot that goes into it. It’s hard to maneuver through,” he says. Boden’s convinced it’s not worth taking the risk yet. “The dining public isn’t ready to be in dining rooms. That’s been made clear to me by guests and friends.” 

An informal poll conducted on May 5 in the well populated “Northern Virginia Foodies” Facebook group found that 74 percent of 506 respondents weren’t ready to dine out. The same percentage was reflected in a national Washington Post-University of Maryland poll conducted from April 28 to May 3. 

Reduced seating capacities might work for sprawling suburban chains, but not The Shack. “We’re 450 square feet,” Boden explains. “We have 26 seats in the dining room. I might be able to function if we’re required to cut back by 50 percent. But 25 percent—what the fuck do I do with six seats?” There’s no one-size-fits-all solution and any limit on capacity, while necessary, strangles revenue.

Sloppy Mama’s BBQ owner Joe Neuman also isn’t in a rush to open his dining room, though he is launching takeout at his Arlington restaurant on Friday. He received a Paycheck Protection Program loan, which has terms that reward businesses that rehire staff. 

Neuman closed Sloppy Mama’s on March 16, just as barbecue season beckoned. Still, the decision was easy. A family member felt sick and couldn’t get tested. “I kept coming back to the goal of safety, not selling more barbecue,” he says. “If you care about safety, the thing to do is to close.”

But Neuman thought the pandemic would run its course in eight weeks, instead of stretching into the summer. “We can’t wait a year,” he says. “If we could be closed and our staff not be screwed, we probably would. But there’s a lot of people who fall outside of safety nets. We can’t leave them hanging.”

Neuman projects that he won’t open his dining room until he sees a steady decline in new cases for six to eight weeks. He’s also monitoring how reopening goes for other restaurants. Restaurant owners are locked in a game of chicken in which they hope others take the lead and launch first. “Part of the problem is there’s been a lack of leadership everywhere,” Neuman says. “This should be a galvanizing event and it’s not. It’s causing division.”

A critical component of leadership is instituting and enforcing protocols. RestaurateurJamie Leeds isn’t willing to reopen the dining room at Hank’s Oyster Bar in Alexandria until safety measures are clearly defined. “Even though our livelihood is at stake, we have to put people’s lives first,” she says. 

Leeds sat in on a call with the ReOpen DC committee on restaurants and food. She advocated for specific guidelines, and says she’d even welcome a COVID-19 certification of some kind, similar to the ServSafe program for food handlers. “If you set standards and requirements, you know they’re being met,” she says.

Will enough supplies be available for restaurants to keep up with those safety protocols? Nam-Viet operations director Richard Nguyenworries about acquiring everything he needs to keep the staff and customers at his family-run Arlington restaurant safe. Masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer will be in even higher demand once restaurants reemerge. 

“Anytime I could find sanitizer throughout this I was hoarding it for the restaurant,” Nguyen admits. “But these 12 bottles are only going to be there for so long.” While he understands why wholesalers like Restaurant Depot opened to the public during the pandemic to stoke new revenue streams, he worries that the pivot will make it harder to find protective equipment.

Nguyen wants to get reopening right. “The last thing you want to hear is that the restaurant is only making a few hundred dollars and you hear about one of your employees getting sick,” Nguyen says. “Our reputation is our integrity. We’ve been in Arlington since 1986.”

Restaurant employees have different considerations, which Northam acknowledged. “Many workers at these businesses are eager to get back to work, but I also understand there are workers who are afraid to go back right now,” he said at the May 8 press conference.

Andrew Shapirolives in D.C., but bartends at Taqueria Picoso in Alexandria. He was shocked when he first heard Virginia restaurants could possibly reopen on May 15. “That was one of my lowest moments,” he says. “A vocal minority of younger people are ready for places to reopen, but elsewhere the general public is still very nervous.” 

Even though the timeline for reopening dining rooms was pushed back, Shapiro still has many worries, chief among them how he’ll get to work. He’s in the process of acquiring a car, but typically relies on public transportation. “Metro has reduced hours and trains don’t run late,” he says. Regular service may not return until Spring 2021, according to WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld. “An Uber ride costs me $40,” Shapiro says. Neither solution limits his exposure to other people or the potential of virus transmission. 

Taqueria Picoso only opened in January, and Shapiro questions if there was enough time to build a base of regular customers who will be clamoring to come back. “What’s a Friday or Saturday night going to be like?” he wonders. “I don’t want to stand behind a bar that isn’t busy. That’s one thing on a Monday or Tuesday. It’s another all week long.” 

Most bars and restaurants laid off staff. “Those who’ve been able to get unemployment want to build up some savings,” Shapiro says. “I’m terrified to give up that money because it’s guaranteed. What happens if I go back and two weeks later we’re not busy and you lose what you saved over the last six weeks?”

Financial security is also front of mind for Diana Fortiz, a general manager at an Arlington restaurant that temporarily closed in mid-March. Her employer is considering introducing curbside takeout, which she says some kitchen staff are pushing for since they didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits and want to work.

“We’re bored and it’s affecting our mental health,” Fortiz says. “But at the same time, things are not going great. You see all these people not following the right guidelines—like what the governor is saying about wearing masks. We know things might get worse if we reopen.” 

Jon Schott’s mental health is also fraying. He’s the beverage director at The People’s Drug in Alexandria. “There’s been some days where I’ve come home and broken down completely,” he says. “These restaurants mean so much to me and the people we’ve met and served over the years. You fight for the things you love.” 

Restaurants have been under constant pressure for months to retool their operations and reevaluate their safety measures. “What better inspiration than if you don’t do it right, you’ll lose your businesses,” Schott says. The People’s Drug found a way to offer most of its menu to-go, plus an array of cocktails, with only a couple of people working. “The stakes are so high for every little thing you do each day,” he says. “That’s super exhausting.” 

Schott was prepared to consider reopening strategies once the original stay-at-home order lifted June 10. That executive order has since been amended to include the implementation of phase one. “It feels like [the government is] giving in to people at home who are complaining,” he says. 

He’s also worried rehiring will be tricky. One employee moved to another city because it’s too expensive to live in the D.C. area without dependable income. Other workers might have children to care for, or could be in close contact with people who are vulnerable to contracting COVID-19. “I wouldn’t make anybody come back,” Schott says. 

June 10 also seems like an appropriate date to reevaluate the situation, according to Meghan Morgan. She bartends and serves as the vice president of sales at Falls Church Distillers, which has a full bar and restaurant. 

Morgan has found some satisfaction in developing ways to reach customers during the crisis. She’s selling plenty of to-go cocktails and she held a Zoom cocktail party for an apartment complex on Cinco de Mayo. “It was kind of cool to cheers with 40 people you’ve never met,” she says. 

The distillery was already considering putting in patio seating before the governor announced that phase one would focus on restaurants with outdoor seating. They’ll forge ahead on patio plans, but Morgan says her employer will take reopening slowly. 

“There’s no need to rush back into things,” she says. “Our area is an educated area. People know the risks.” That said, Morgan assesses the crisis succinctly: “As a bar or restaurant, we need people to come through the door.”