Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Restaurants and other licensed food establishments can cut the caution tape protecting their patio seating: Starting Friday, they’ll be able to welcome dine-in customers for the first time since March 16. Mayor Muriel Bowser signed an executive order on Wednesday that allows the District to enter the first stage of the city’s phased reopening plan, based primarily on a metric that measures community spread of COVID-19. She calls phase one “stay-at-home light,” because while a number of new activities are permitted, gatherings of more than 10 people are still prohibited. 

The executive order says that restaurants, taverns, nightclubs, and mix-used facilities that serve food and already have approved outdoor service areas can begin seating those areas Friday. All outdoor dining customers must be seated and must place their orders while sitting at tables. All tables must be six feet apart and there can be no more than six people per table.

Licensed food establishments that do not already have permitted outdoor areas should see a solution soon, according to the mayor. “We’re launching a process to reimagine sidewalks, roads, and other spaces for restaurants, retail, and recreation,” she says.

Additional guidance for phase one urges restaurants to take reservations and keep a log of who dines in case contract tracing in required; asks patrons to wear masks when not actively drinking and eating; tells staff to stay home if sick; details stringent sanitation procedures; encourages the use of disposable menus; and outlaws buffets. 

Some owners were so confident that phase one would begin Friday that they began announcing their plans before the city had even made the official determination. Agua 301 in Navy Yard said Tuesday that they would reopen Friday at 3 p.m. Owner Steve Briggs explained he will only be utilizing a maximum of 10 tables at a time (or maximum of 40 guests) on the restaurant’s patio. 

The ReOpen DC advisory group Bowser assembled gave their initial reopening recommendations on May 21. The hospitality industry did not react favorably to them. The biggest point of consternation surrounded how the group defined a “bar” versus a “restaurant.” While ReOpen DC said restaurants should be allowed to open outside in phase one and inside in phase two—with capacity limits—the group said bars and nightclubs should remain idle until phase three. 

Bars and nightclubs felt left out. “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,” attorney Andrew Kline told City Paper last week. He sits on the ReOpen DC committee on restaurants and food and frequently represents restaurants and the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. He expounded in Washingtonian, explaining that the recommendation to treat bars separately stemmed from their nature of being places Washingtonians go to meet strangers.

“Let me sum up D.C.’s reopening plans from the perspective of a restaurateur: we are fucked,” Ian Hilton, the man behind El ReyBrixtonChez Billy Sud, and many other local restaurants and bars, tweeted Friday reacting to the recommendations. 

The city, it seems, heard bar and club owners’ battle cries. At least to a degree. Restaurants, bars, and clubs are being treated the same, at least in phase one. 

But many critical questions about the plan’s impacts remain. First, what happens if restaurant workers don’t feel safe returning to work? The virus is still running through the city. Five new deaths were reported on Wednesday. If employees refuse to punch in, their unemployment benefits could be in jeopardy.

Lawmakers recently added labor and workforce protections during COVID-19 that talk about what’s considered a good enough cause during a public health emergency to stay home and retain unemployment benefits. They include an employer’s failure to comply with written directives containing safety measures to protect employees or the public; an employee being quarantined or isolated by the Department of Health or any other applicable local or federal agency; and an employee opting to self-quarantine or self-isolate in a manner consistent with the recommendations or guidance of the Department of Health, any other local or federal agency, or a medical professional. These stipulations create grey areas that could prove difficult to navigate. 

Hospitality industry employees are also worried about how they’re supposed to commute home after their shifts if Metro closes at 9 p.m. and busses stop running at 11 p.m. While some employers are footing the bill for Lyft and Uber rides for their staff members, that isn’t a sustainable long-term fix. “Metro is committed, as we are, to looking at the phases and ridership and adjusting their schedules throughout all of the phases of reopening,” Bowser says. “There are other bus and shuttle type services that Metro can flex throughout the phased reopening.” 

Then there are small questions City Paper hopes to discover the answers to over the next couple of days. Does rooftop seating count as permitted outdoor dining space? What happens when there’s bad weather and guests ask to move inside? Can patrons walk through the restaurant to reach outdoor areas and use the restrooms?

Bowser underscored the importance of testing during her press conference: “This virus is still in our city, our region, and our nation. We still need to be focused on identifying who has COVID-19, who has been exposed to COVID-19, and making sure those people isolate so we can stop the spread of the virus in our city. Testing is how we do that. More people will be moving around. We want to emphasize, if you need a test, get a test.”