Propane heater at Fight Club on Capitol Hill Credit: Laura Hayes

Restaurants are grateful for any aid to help them through the COVID-19 pandemic, but they’re calling for greater flexibility to make the city’s $4 million winterization grant program more impactful. As of yesterday, the terms of the $6,000 awards stipulated that business owners had to use the funds by Nov. 30 or return what they hadn’t spent.

Operators throughout the week shared that a deadline extension would help them overcome roadblocks they’re encountering that are outside of their control such as a propane shortage. City Paper presented its reporting to the Mayor’s Office of Nightlife and Culture yesterday morning—the same day that Director Shawn Townsend says they made the decision to extend the deadline to Dec. 12.

In the fall, D.C. set out to help restaurants and retail establishments set up outdoor spaces such as sidewalk cafes, streeteries, or summer gardens for the colder fall and winter months. Funds are earmarked for tents, heaters, propane, lighting, furniture, and other costs related to operating al fresco. Applicants had to submit budgets detailing how they planned to use the money and must follow up by submitting receipts by the deadline.

As of Nov. 12, the Mayor’s Office of Nightlife and Culture had awarded 542 recipients $6,000 grants for a total of $3,252,000. The grants came with a deadline because the money comes from the federal CARES Act, which requires all funds be spent by Dec. 30. Still, restaurants want even more time or at least more leeway on how they’re allowed to spend their grants.

When the program was announced in September, the District was in a different place. COVID-19 cases were holding steady instead of climbing. On Wednesday, Mayor Muriel Bowser intimated that she would join other leaders across the country in instituting new restrictions “soon.” 

For now, D.C. remains in Phase 2 of reopening, which allows restaurants to seat their dining rooms at 50 percent capacity. Restaurant owners wonder if Bowser will reduce that capacity limit or eliminate indoor dining altogether as an increasing number of jurisdictions have done this month to slow virus transmission. Doing so would make winterizing outdoor dining spaces even more important and could have winterization grant recipients reconsidering how to allocate funds. 

Restrictions being in limbo is one reason restaurant operators say they’d like more time to spend their awards. It also hasn’t been especially cold in D.C. yet, and restaurants operating outdoor spaces in the winter for the first time are still figuring out how much fuel and equipment they need to heat their newfangled spaces. The biggest problem is propane. 

“We’re having issues finding propane anywhere at this point, which is making it harder to spend the money on time,” says La Jambe owner Anastasia Mori. She, like several other restaurant owners City Paper spoke with, purchased heaters before the winterization grant program was announced, fearing there would be a mad dash for them. The grant program does not reimburse recipients for purchases they made before receiving the money. Her Shaw wine bar has heaters, but not enough fuel. “We’re going to have to scramble to spend it on time. And I think that a lot of other places are having the same issue.” 

Jackie Lee’s co-owner Nick Schieber says his Brightwood watering hole budgeted about $2,000 of the grant to spend on fuel to heat a small patio. “Finding out we could budget in fuel was crucial,” he says. “If we can’t use this grant for that, it’s much less helpful. We’re looking at $40 a day in propane. That adds up when you’re not doing a ton of sales. Those first eight drinks we sold, [it’s like] we didn’t really sell them.” 

But his quest for propane hasn’t been fruitful. He tried several hardware stores and propane delivery services. “I Googled propane and called the first 10 places that said they had it and it wasn’t looking good,” Schieber says. He asked Propane Taxi if he could prepay $1,500 up front, but he says the company, which services D.C. and three other metropolitan areas, declined the offer.

Even if bars and restaurants could find enough propane to buy in advance, storing it is a separate challenge. “While I’m grateful to get the funds, the Nov. 30 deadline is limiting, to say the least,” All Souls owner David Batista told City Paper before the city extended the deadline. “We were hoping to use the money to buy propane throughout the winter and now I have to figure out how to spend it in the next 10 days … If we buy propane, it’s not as if we can order six-grand worth and squirrel it away at the bar.” 

“I’ve not been able to find anyone that would let me pre-buy propane and it’s not like I can store $2,000 of it,” Cafe Berlin co-owner Clytie Roberts-Glage says. The Capitol Hill German restaurant already has outdoor furniture, umbrellas, and a tent, since they’ve long had outdoor space that’s particularly popular in October. They’re not planning to erect the tent because Roberts-Glage worries about the riskiness of enclosed spaces, so she wants to spend the money on propane and heaters.  

To its credit, the city anticipated winterization materials would be in high demand. That’s why Bowser touted partnerships with two retailers on Oct. 30. “We know that one of the best ways we can support our restaurants is to help them stay open and able to provide outdoor seating, even in the winter months,” Bowser said in an announcement. “This new partnership with Ace Hardware and The Home Depot will enable Streatery Winter Ready Grant recipients to quickly and more easily secure the materials and equipment that they need.” 

But there’s only much stores can do to keep up with demand, according to Gina Schaefer, who owns 13 Ace Hardware stores in the area. Not all of her shops are allowed to sell propane due to fire department rules, but the ones that can are struggling to keep it in stock. “One location was supposed to get 84 units and they gave us 68,” she says. “They’re delivering more infrequently at this point.” 

She says she spoke with managers about putting a limit on the number of tanks someone can buy after a restaurant owner came in looking for 11, but eventually decided against it. Instead, Schaefer is focusing her energy on recommending alternatives like electric heaters or making referrals. (She also suggests diners bring hot water bottles to restaurants and put them on their laps or inside their coats to keep warm.)

“I spoke with a restaurateur yesterday,” Schaefer says. “They said Propane Taxi is no longer taking new accounts. We had been referring people to them. That’s another option off the table. We’re going to do what we can to stay on top of our suppliers.” (Propane Taxi did not return City Paper’s multiple requests for an interview, nor are they answering the line that business owners are supposed to call to get a new account set up.)

Schaefer hypothesizes that major chains like Home Depot and Lowe’s are getting first dibs on tanks because of their size and ability to buy in bulk. When City Paper called the Lowe’s in Fort Lincoln, a sales associate said, “We have some right now, but you better come get it.” An employee at the Home Depot in Brentwood could only offer: “I got off work at 2 p.m. yesterday so I don’t know. I heard the truck came.” Subsequent calls were disconnected. Meanwhile at W.S. Jenks & Son on Bladensburg Road NE, an associate says they’re sold out of propane and it’s been that way for a week. They’re hoping to get a restock by Sunday.

Some operators predicted propane would be a problem and went a different route. Ivy & Coney co-owner Josh Saltzman decided on electric heaters to warm the Shaw bar’s rooftop. “Normally in winter we’d have the roof closed and it warms up real quick with bodies in there,” he says. “But we’re going to have every window and the roof open so our utility bills will be through the roof.” Literally. 

He wants to use the grant money to settle those bills, but he can’t pay Washington Gas or Pepco in advance. “The grant program is a good one, there’s just this one flaw depending on how you use the grant,” Saltzman says, referring to the deadline. “If it’s a winterization grant, let us take care of expenses through the winter.” 

Restaurants are also having a hard time finding contractors who can execute winterization build-outs expediently, again because of high demand. Lyman’s Tavern couldn’t get anyone to start theirs until next week. Mori from La Jambe reached out to the contractor she typically uses and they reported being too busy to consider new winterization work. 

Restaurant operators shared what kind of deadline extension would be most beneficial even though the federal government isn’t likely to budge on CARES Act requirements. “Through the end of the year is a reasonable request,” says Roberts-Glage from Cafe Berlin. “It will give us all time to get our heaters and get all of the equipment we are needing. For those of us who haven’t been open outside in the winter before, we’ll see how much propane we need to make our spaces comfortable enough.” 

Batista from All Souls agrees. “Give us until December 31 to spend the money,” he says. “I have no idea of what is going to be needed during the winter until the temperature actually drops.” 

“We’re grateful someone is thinking of us, but more flexibility and an extended timeline would be helpful,” says Schieber from Jackie Lee’s. He’s hoping for another two weeks at least. Fortunately, he’ll get them. “But if the intended purpose is to keep us operating and keep sales tax revenue coming to the city, if we could use this money for other things to help us be here when this is over, the money might be better spent … If we can’t use it all, let us put it toward payroll.” 

Chris Svetlik, who owns Republic Cantina in Truxton Circle, feels the same way. “I’m definitely not complaining about having received a grant of any size during a pandemic,” he says. “I found the narrow focus on tents and portable propane heaters to be a bit odd … Is requiring that aid money be spent on fleeting solutions for outdoor dining, rather than allowing restaurants to elect the best use of the funds, really the best approach? I’m just picturing a lot of random empty tents on patios in January and February while rent, credit card debit, and bills pile up inside.” 

Some criticized the winterization grant program from the beginning because it gave a boost to businesses that already had the advantage of being able to move some of their operations outside where customers are safer. Some restaurants and non-food retailers weren’t eligible because they couldn’t secure outdoor space or it didn’t make sense for their business to move outside. They too could have benefitted from $6,000.