Tequila & Taco in Alexandria
Tequila & Taco in Alexandria Credit: Sabrina Medora

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The District and its surrounding suburbs in Maryland are becoming ghost towns as they fight to contain the spread the novel coronavirus. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan closed restaurants to on-site dining on Monday and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser followed shortly after on the same day. Both are adhering to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations to practice social distancing.

Despite the urging of fellow officials, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has held out on shutting restaurants and bars down for as long as possible. Dragging his feet on issuing a mandate created quite the juxtaposition over the weekend and early this week. Looking into buzzing dining rooms operating like it was business-as-usual was like peering into a parallel universe compared to the scene in Maryland and D.C.

Old Town Alexandria residentJonathan Maynard also walked around taking in the scene over the weekend. He saw crowds walking up and down King Street. “Restaurants over by my place are still operating on normal hours but have implemented extra sanitary practices,” he says. 

Tequila & Taco in Old Town was packed, with a waitlist on Friday night. They served 300 people and only 30 were take-away orders, according to manager James Beck. By all accounts, it was a regular Friday night for the team. 

Business slowed down slightly on Tuesday, which was also St. Patrick’s Day. “We did 94 covers that day and 27 were take-out,” Beck says. On St. Patrick’s Day 2019, they had 140 diners with only six takeout orders. 

Brut Champagne and Wine Bar has also been welcoming customers, many of whom are looking to escape their social distancing situations and get some work done with a glass of wine by their side.

Old Town resident Durel had drinks with a friend at Brut Tuesday night, counting seven others in the dining room with him. He says he’s eaten out several times since the World Health Organization deemed the novel coronavirus a global pandemic. “A bunch of my friends don’t want to go anywhere,” he says. “The only thing I would be worried about is if I were contagious and could get someone else sick.” 

Asked if he knew whether or not he was contagious, he said, “I don’t have any symptoms. I don’t think so. It’s scary to not know. But I’m taking precautions, it’s not like I’m going wild. Before we even sit down, we wash [our] hands.”  

Durel plans to keep dining out as long as restaurants stay open. If his favorites voluntarily shut down, he will look into carry-out options. He may need to adjust his social plans soon. On Tuesday night Northam issued an emergency order declaring no more than 10 people can be in a restaurant at one time.

The move has left some restaurateurs frustrated, not unlike where D.C. restaurant owners and workers were emotional on Sunday after Bowser told them they could keep operating but had to eliminate bar seating and not seat parties larger than six people, among other restrictions. They wanted the government to shut them down so that the decision was out of their hands and they could focus on obtaining emergency financial relief. 

Michelle Poteaux, co-owner of Bastille, doesn’t think being allowed to serve 10 customers at a time, plus delivery and take-out, is enough of a lifeline. “What does that look like?” she asks. “Every step we take is based on what we’re told and what we hear, but we’re not getting a lot of direction from the state of Virginia. Everything is piecemeal. It really makes me angry.”

Falling sales have her feeling anxious for what’s to come. “Sunday was when we really began to see a shift,” Poteaux says. While Bastille welcomed almost 100 diners Saturday evening, Sunday was “a complete and total loss.” 

Bastille has already begun the process of laying off staff. “It’s not a whole lot of employees, but they all mean something to me,” Poteaux says. “Financially speaking, I’m worried about making my payroll from last week,” she says. “My employees mean a lot to me. I have kids to think about. I don’t know where to go or what to do and it infuriates me.”

Others have decided not to wait for the state to go all the way. They’re closing voluntarily. 

Nick Freshman, co-owner of Spider Kelly’s, closed the bar on Monday. In an emotional blog post, Freshman shares that the decision was made under pressure from the public. His sales were down and keeping people employed seemed impossible. The week prior, his colleagues thought the situation would “blow over.” By Monday, the restaurant had laid off 40 people. 

Alexandria Restaurant Partners made the decision to temporarily shutter seven out of their eight restaurants after the governor’s latest update; Lena’s Wood Fired Pizza and Tap in Del Ray is the one left standing.

“We looked at being responsible with Governor Northam’s announcement stating that we have to make sure that gatherings can be no larger than 10,” says general manager James Cattaneo. “The feasibility of maintaining that was not practical at the other restaurants. Fortunately we are able to offer to-go and delivery here at Lena’s.” 

After operating in the Del Ray neighborhood for four and a half years, Lena’s has built a dedicated following of customers that rely on them for carry-out dinners. 

When the decision was made to voluntarily close the other restaurants, all perishable items were moved to Lena’s. Additionally, unemployed workers of the group can sign up for free carry-out meals three times per week. The group is staying nimble, making daily modifications in accordance with what’s best for their staff and their guests.

Whether the governor mandates a full shutdown or not is not a concern of Cattaneo’s at the moment. “I want to make sure that whatever is being done is being done sensibly and responsibly for the population,” he says. “I’ll leave that to the experts.”

Meanwhile, Beck of Tequila & Taco, is hoping that the governor stays the course. “Why shut down when we still have the opportunity to earn some money?” he asks. Tequila & Taco and its sister restaurant, Sweet Fire Donna’s, are keeping their regular operating hours and are welcoming 10 diners in their restaurants at a time. 

“Some people are really uncomfortable about working and that’s totally understandable. But other people are ready to work double shifts. Right now, we’ve got one bartender, myself, and two cooks,” Beck explains. The plan is to keep it to four working employees per shift. 

A takeaway order tent is positioned outside of both Tequila & Taco and Sweet Fire Donna’s. Customers can place their orders online or in person and pick up their food within minutes.

Amir Mostafavi, founder of South Block Juice Co. and nonprofit Fruitful Planet, is taking things “hour by hour,” but is currently relieved to be able to still welcome guests in his stores in some capacity. 

“We’re looking at it from a few different angles,” he says. “We’re trying to keep our staff employed. We’re trying to make sure they’re making enough money and getting enough hours to pay their own bills. A lot of people need fruits and vegetables and juices right now and we’re doing everything we can to keep those available to customers.”

This isn’t to say that Mostafavi hasn’t seen a decline in sales. From a big picture perspective, South Block was built as a low-risk business with no investors and no money borrowed. “A lot of businesses have it way worse than we do,” he says.

South Block launched an online employee relief initiative fund. All gift card sales from now through the end of the month will go toward labor costs. As of yesterday, people had purchased almost $7,000 in gift cards.

“We’re so grateful that our community is really stepping up so we want to show our support for [them] as well.”

Mostafavi isn’t sure if he wants the government to close businesses down to all on-premise consumption like other jurisdictions have done. “I just always worry from a small business perspective that there’s usually some kind of burden left on the owner,” he says. “The government needs to offer some kind of, if you want to call it, a bailout. They bailed out Wall Street. It’s time to bail out small business employees. That’s the only way the economy is going to survive this turnaround.”