Credit: Laura Hayes

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Mayor Muriel Bowser has yet to release concrete reopening plans for D.C.’s bars and restaurants, though she’s compiled an advisory committee that’s light on representation from the bar industry. Meanwhile, the White House Coronavirus Task Force’s guidelines for reopening the country outline that bars shouldn’t reopen until their jurisdictions meet certain testing and virus transmission thresholds. The guidelines recommend bringing bars back to life in the second phase of the plan, following restaurants, with rules, such as limiting how many patrons can stand, in place. 

While bars and restaurants will reopen in the District, it’s likely to be a long while until patrons are able to experience bars like they used to. Patrons probably won’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder while ordering drinks at the bar, hug one another when the Nats hit a home run, or grind on the dance floor. Here’s what bar owners around the District say patrons should expect. 

Sports bars might have trouble readjusting.

Chris DeFelice, owner ofDirty Water Sports Bar on H Street NE, says sports bars’ bottom lines might depend on the timeline of sports returning. The start of the Major League Baseball season has been delayed, and basketball and hockey are on indefinite hold. An optimistic NFL held the 2020 draft last week but it remains unclear whether its season will start on time.

“If sports come back and we reopen around the same time, I think we’ll be okay,” he says. But if bars are allowed to reopen before sports can resume, DeFelice worries patrons won’t be as easily drawn back. He predicts patrons might be willing to come on weekends without sports, but not during the week. 

Jeremy Gifford, owner of Walter’s Sports Bar in Navy Yard, agrees. “We’re built around sports,” he says, adding that the bar often saw a reduction in patrons on non-sports days before the pandemic. 

“We are not built to be a little restaurant with 20 to 30 seats,” he says. “We hope to be large enough to benefit off of baseball or soccer games.”

Not every bar will be able to open right away.

The idea of partially reopening scares DeFelice the most. He doesn’t expect the bar to bring in as much money as it did before the mass closures if he can’t fill it to capacity. He worries some patrons may be afraid to come back. 

“I’d rather personally stay closed longer to where I don’t get stuck in the situation where my landlord is expecting rent,” despite only operating at partial capacity, he says. The bar was unable to get funding from the first round of the Paycheck Protection Program. Gifford says he’s told his landlord that Walter’s may face troubles reopening without sports. 

Ian Hilton, who owns a mix of establishments from sit-down restaurants like Chez Billy Sud in Georgetown to multi-story bar The Brixton on U Street NW, doesn’t think all of his establishments will be able to reopen at once with reduced capacities and patrons unable to walk up to bars to place orders. 

“We may decide not to open until restrictions are reduced even further,” Hilton says. Some of his venues that toe the line between restaurant and bar, such as El Rey and American Ice Company, both in the U Street NW corridor, may reopen first. 

Tony Tomelden, the owner of The Pug, isn’t optimistic about partial reopenings. The Pug is small. “We can maybe have three, four people at the bar and possibly eight people in the back,” he reasons. “But 18 people a night is not going to carry me through.” He anticipates larger bars might fare better.

While restaurants have the option to offer takeout or delivery for business, Eighteenth Street Lounge ownerFarid Nouri says bars and nightclubs rely on people to show up and hang out on the premises. 

“The bar business and the club business is based on density,” says Nouri, “If you don’t have that, you don’t have business. It’s almost like eating soup with a fork.”

Washingtonians come to Eighteenth Street Lounge specifically to dance. What happens when there’s no dance floor? “We sell ambiance, we sell music, we sell atmosphere,” Nouri says. “It’s kind of hard to package that.”

Bartenders may become more like servers.

DeFelice is preparing his bartenders to operate more like servers by providing table service. “Table service is going to be the whole thing,” he says.

Hilton has been thinking of piloting more tech-based experiences. The AC Hotel downtown made some people uncomfortable when it used buttons on the table to call servers for various needs, but it may become the new norm. Hilton envisions using QR codes on the table that allow people to order or call for the check to limit interactions with servers. 

Bars might lose their charm of being the place you go to meet new people. 

Hilton doesn’t envision things will go back to normal until at least April of next year. He hopes by that point there will be a vaccine for coronavirus. He imagines younger people will return to bars sooner, but shouldn’t expect the same experience they remember. They’ll probably stick with their own friend groups instead of dancing or mingling with someone new. Hilton worries that may dissuade people from venturing out.

“It really sucks [when] what you’re trying to do is create an experience where people are out and about and enjoying company and maybe making a friend or two,” he says.

Roger Brown, the general manager at El Rey, also thinks people will also be eager to return to bars, but predicts people will feel a bit timid about engaging with one another. He also worries the restrictions will impact the experience. “What I’m most proud of with El Rey is you can go and not feel out of place,” he says. “It’s not a place to hide in the corner.”

Gifford is thinking about seating people outdoors to make it easier to comply with social distancing restrictions. It may also make people feel more laid back and comfortable. “Even if it’s psychological,” he says.