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Effective at 10 p.m. tonight all D.C. bars, restaurants, and nightclubs must close their businesses to customers through April 1. They are permitted to continue serving food through pick-up and delivery methods. The District joins a handful of other jurisdictions that have done the same, including Los Angeles and the entire states of Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Massachusetts, Illinois, Connecticut, New Jersey, Kentucky, and Washington.
At a press conference Monday, Mayor Muriel Bowser touched on enforcement: “We have the power in a state of emergency to revoke business licenses,” she says. “We would identify the ways a business didn’t comply with the Department of Health mandate or other mandates and once we establish they have defied those orders, we can revoke those licenses … As mayor, I don’t wake up in the morning thinking about how to shut down a business or issue a fine, but I’ll do it.”
The move comes as some bars and restaurants begged to be shut down so that they may become more qualified for financial assistance. Voluntary closures began Sunday afternoon and included everything from Michelin-starred restaurants to fast-casual spots to large restaurant groups including Neighborhood Restaurant Group and ThinkFoodGroup.
José Andrés shared that “all restaurant employees will be provided with paid leave and current health benefits for at least the first two weeks.” But not every restaurant and bar owner is in the position to pay employees beyond the handful of days currently required by District law or even keep them on staff. Some will have to lay off their entire teams as they go dark. Operators tell City Paper they’re looking for relief for their workers and if possible, for their businesses, so they can reopen following the global pandemic.
Help likely won’t come from insurance. While some restaurants have plans that cover interrupted business, global pandemic isn’t included alongside things like flood and fire. It’ll have to come from banks, landlords, and local and federal governments.
On Tuesday, the D.C. Council is meeting to discuss the “COVID-19 Response Emergency Amendment Act of 2020.” It seeks to extend unemployment compensation to those who are out of work because of coronavirus; create a small business grant program; prohibit providers from disconnecting a businesses’ water, electric, and gas during the crisis; and offer some assistance with sales and property taxes.
The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington has been involved in conversations with local legislators about what restaurants will need in order to rise again after the mandated closing period. “Cash is king,” says RAMW’s CEO Kathy Hollinger. “Relief has to come in the form of immediate, easy access to grants that give restaurants the capital to stay afloat during an uncertain time. All of the other things are wonderful, but in order for them to reopen they’ll need that kind of financial support.”
Congress is also working on a federal coronavirus relief bill. It provides $1 billion in emergency grants to states to assist with processing and paying unemployment insurance and includes another $1 billion for food security programs like SNAP. It also includes some paid sick leave provisions but that doesn’t help workers who have been laid off because their businesses are closed.
City Paper asked business owners what kind of assistance they need the most to survive. They listed rent deferment, commercial loan deferment, no penalties on future unemployment premiums, and a policy where it would be illegal for a landlord to evict a tenant over missed rent payments.
Timber Pizza Co. and Call Your Mother co-owner Andrew Dana is looking for quick and easy access to SBA loans with low interest rates. The Small Business Administration issued a statement on March 12 detailing how to apply for disaster relief lending. It says the interest rate is 3.75 percent for small businesses without credit available elsewhere.
“3.5 percent is the normal rate for disaster bonds, but that isn’t going to cut it,” Dana says. “With margins hovering around zero percent for restaurants, we need interest rates to also hover around zero percent or this disruption will shutter restaurants left and right. Less than 1 percent interest rates are what we’d like.”
Dana points to an idea floated by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. “It’s the idea of zero percent bonds with the assurance that we keep folks on payroll,” he says. “I think that’s something we should be fighting for as a restaurant—money in our pockets now to keep paying employees. It’s simple, avoids the government worrying about the administrative issues of unemployment, and most importantly for so many restaurants, it protects undocumented workers who otherwise don’t have access to unemployment.”
There are also a handful of grassroots efforts in the community. Hook Hall and the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington have teamed up on a fund to help buy supplies and meals for restaurant and bar staff. Two individuals are collecting service industry workers’ Venmo handles to create a “Virtual Tip Jar” where Washingtonians can send direct support to their favorite hospitality employee. City Paper has not verified the authenticity of the Venmo accounts listed.
As of Sunday night, the District had 17 confirmed cases of coronavirus.