Staff only sign at a restaurant
Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Officials across the country are taking significant steps to limit the spread of COVID-19 transmission inside bars and restaurants. The rollbacks are unpopular within the hospitality sector, which continues to struggle to bring in revenue and pay staff eight months into the pandemic. 

Despite the fact that coronavirus cases in this region are hitting new highs this month and new scientific research about the risks of indoor dining is emerging, the mayor’s office continues to allow restaurants and bars to operate. D.C. is in Phase 2 of reopening, which allows for indoor dining at 50 percent capacity with service hours limited to between 6 a.m. through midnight. Today alone, the District reported 206 new COVID-19 cases.

As of midnight on Saturday, Nov. 14, indoor dining will no longer be permitted in San Francisco. City officials’ announcement came as COVID-19 cases increased 250 percent in recent days. “Making a decision to support opening a business and then asking that business to close, it’s heartbreaking,” Mayor London Breed said Wednesday. “It’s very very unfortunate, but it is necessary.”

Effective Nov. 13, Minnesota bars and restaurants will have a newly mandated closing time of 10 p.m. and indoor dining will again be limited to 50 percent capacity. The state saw 5,000 new cases and 23 deaths related to COVID-19 on Tuesday. Governor Tim Walz said younger people make up a disproportionate percentage of new cases. “After 9 p.m., when we contact trace, the numbers are doubling,” Walz said at a Tuesday press conference. “People are getting more lax, especially when alcohol is involved.”

After New Jersey saw a similar spike in new cases and deaths, Governor Phil Murphy signed an order Tuesday that placed a 10 p.m. closing time on indoor dining that starts Thursday, Nov. 12. The Garden State recorded 3,877 new cases that day, its highest daily positive test tally since April. Twenty-one people lost their lives.

Closer to home, Maryland restaurants will have to reduce their indoor seating capacities from 75 to 50 percent starting tonight at 5 p.m. Governor Larry Hogan made the call after his state recorded 1,338 new cases Tuesday, the seventh straight day the state reported at least 1,000 cases. The Montgomery County Council voted to make restrictions even tighter than other parts of the state. Its mandate limits indoor dining capacity to 25 percent.

The Post reported on how the D.C. region is faring compared to the rest of the country earlier this week. The national seven-day average of new infections per 100,000 residents stood at 33 Monday; in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, the seven-day average is 14, 20, and 17, respectively. The three jurisdictions reported a total of 2,727 new cases Monday—the sixth straight daily high, up from an average of 1,313 daily cases at the start of October.

City Paper shared new research about the dangers of indoor dining with Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s office before asking why the District hasn’t taken any steps to impose new restrictions. The mayor’s office responded by sending City Paper a clip of Monday’s press briefing.

“We’ve been pretty conservative already, more conservative than our neighbors in Maryland or Virginia,” Bowser said. “I don’t know exactly the things they’re rolling back, but they’re probably rolling back some things we never advanced. We are constantly evaluating and we don’t have anything more to report.”

It’s worth noting that as of last month, D.C.’s contract tracers were not asking patients to specify whether they dined indoors or outdoors. Differentiating between the settings could prove vital.

Research published this week in the journal Nature combined public health and cell phone data to determine which types of businesses were associated with the highest levels of virus transmission during the peak of the infection in the spring. Like other metropolitan areas studied, D.C. had its highest proportion of new cases attributable to restaurant-related activities despite any precautionary measures taken during this time period.

To conduct the study, researchers tracked the movements of close to 100 million people as they visited indoor spaces like grocery stores, churches, hotels, and bars. Researchers found that re-opening both “full-service” or “limited-service” restaurants is potentially more dangerous to public health than reopening religious institutions or even doctor’s offices.

A computer scientist at Stanford University, who is a senior author of the report, told New York Times reporters that restaurants were “by far the riskiest places, about four times riskier than gyms and coffee shops, followed by hotels.” 

The Nature study also found that Washingtonians in the lowest income brackets were nearly three times more likely to contract the virus than higher-earning groups. Given the financial vulnerability of restaurant workers during this time, the District is essentially exposing the highest risk worker group to the highest risk activity.

City Paper also asked the mayor’s office if the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington was pressuring the mayor to stay the course. While the mayor’s team hasn’t responded, Kathy Hollinger, CEO of the trade association, says RAMW hasn’t been in direct conversation with the city about “remaining in place.”

Instead, Hollinger says, RAMW is focused on helping restaurants extend outdoor dining capabilities in every way possible, including procuring heaters. “We’re less in discussions with the city and more in conversation with operators looking and listening to consumer behavior.” 

RAMW has been fielding questions all week about the immediate future of indoor dining in D.C. “We’re very much preparing our folks for a rollback,” Hollinger says. But she’s also seeing restaurant and bar owners take matters into their own hands.

“I feel good that our operators are trying to make decisions based on what’s going to work for them,” Hollinger continues. “Some may choose to revert to takeout and delivery strategies throughout the colder months. The psychology has changed slightly with the Biden win. They’re a bit more hopeful, so they’re also re-energized to think of creative ways to get through the winter.”

Restaurants and bars can choose to close their dining rooms until the caseload retreats. Some have proactively done so, citing a lack of interest in indoor dining, expenses of winterizing outdoors spaces, and overall uncertainty. But it’s hard to expect everyone to dial it back voluntarily.

Consider Stable, which just unveiled their new dining room this week complete with reservable Swiss chalets. Or fast-casual restaurant SEOULSPICE, which just retooled its business model to serve Korean barbecue.

“Our team wanted to find a way to engage new business while offering an outstanding value and a safe indoor dining environment during these uncertain economic times,” SEOULSPICE owner Eric Shin said in a press release announcing his restaurant’s swap to Korean barbecue. “We hope our customers will make a return revisit to our restaurants, knowing that we are taking every necessary precaution to ensure our patrons and staff stay safe.”

While operators await instructions or take initiative, hospitality industry workers are left wondering about their future. They’re taking guesses like everyone else.

“I think D.C. will eventually go back to a lockdown situation, with the weather changing and case numbers not slowing down,” says Chris Vallejo, who recently served as the food and beverage operations manager at the DC Renaissance Hotel. “D.C. will be slow to respond as we have been during this whole COVID-19 pandemic. We were slow to open back up and slow to get the unemployment aid that was offered, so this just kind of falls in line with leadership’s current reactions.”

Bowser recently patted residents on the back for doing their part to slow the spread of the virus, even as cases increase. 

“I don’t think anybody expected that, as we went into the winter, we would see lower numbers,” she said at a Tuesday press conference. “What I can say is while they’re higher, they’re not spiking higher. That’s because D.C. residents continue to be diligent in their everyday activities and we greatly appreciate that.”

Vallejo doesn’t see it that way. “As much as we like to think we are doing our part here in D.C., you just need to walk around for about an hour and you’ll see people really aren’t,” he says. “I live by Crispus Attucks Park and people are not social distancing and hardly any are wearing masks.”

This story has been updated to reflect that D.C. had its highest proportion of new cases attributable to restaurant-related activities, rather than having the highest proportion of new cases attributable to restaurant-related activities than any other city studied. We regret this error.