Mayor Muriel Bowser
Mayor Muriel Bowser. Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

Mayor Muriel Bowser introduced new operating restrictions this morning to slow the transmission of COVID-19 in D.C. Starting Wednesday, Nov. 25, on-site alcohol consumption and sales must stop at 10 p.m., but restaurants can continue operating until midnight. On Dec. 14, Bowser will reduce indoor dining capacity from 50 percent to 25 percent. She says the three-week delay will allow restaurant owners to prepare for the change.

The moves come weeks after COVID-19 cases started climbing again in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. The adjustments, announced at Bowser’s morning press conference, will “help us flatten the curve, reserve hospital beds for those most in need of care, and keep our community safe during this nationwide surge in cases.”

But even as case numbers began to rise in early November, the District’s dining establishments remained open while neighboring jurisdictions moved more quickly to roll back restaurant operations. Bowser told those concerned that Maryland and Virginia were “coming more in line with where we’ve been.”

That’s not quite accurate. Montgomery County and Prince George’s County both reduced their permitted indoor dining capacities to 25 percent earlier this month. Virginia instituted a 10 p.m. curfew on the on-premise consumption of alcohol in mid-November. Most recently, National Harbor instituted a curfew for minors over the weekend.  

Elsewhere in the country, 18 states have set time restrictions on on-site operations or alcohol service and 20 have set capacity limits on indoor dining. Kentucky, Illinois, Michigan, Washington, and most counties in California do not permit indoor dining, and both indoor and outdoor dining are off limits in Oregon, New Mexico, and, starting Wednesday, the entirety of Los Angeles County.

With the new restrictions on indoor dining in D.C., outdoor spaces have become even more valuable. Some restaurants have always had outdoor space, while others were able to apply for use of a “parklet” or to join block-long “streateries.” Restaurants with new or existing outside areas could then apply for $6,000 grants to winterize these areas, giving them an advantage over restaurants with no outdoor seating whatsoever.

Sanjay Mandhaiya doesn’t have any outdoor seating at Pappe, the Indian restaurant he owns on 14th Street NW. The restaurant was getting busier in recent weeks, nearing 50 percent capacity. Now he has to remove tables and chairs. “It’s going to hurt us tremendously because our business will be slashed in half,” he says. “I understand it’s for the safety of the people, but it does limit our business.” 

He encourages fans of Pappe to order takeout and delivery and advises guests who absolutely must dine indoors to be flexible with their time. “What we’ll have to do is space out reservations so we can accommodate as many guests as possible,” he says, recommending diners book tables at off-peak times such as 5 p.m. or 9 p.m. 

Jo McDaniel, the bar manager at A League of Her Own, decided that winterizing the queer bar’s outdoor space wasn’t worth the investment. “Even with the grant, going through several tanks of propane every night is too costly,” she says. Gas and heaters are already in short supply. ALOHO, like Pappe, depends on indoor business. 

McDaniel isn’t overly concerned with the 25 percent capacity limit because she says her bar was already spacing out its tables to the point where they weren’t hitting 50 percent capacity. “I’m a real stickler for it,” she says. “Others have toed the line a bit on spacing tables. I say that recognizing that I’m privileged that we have so much space. It’s only hard because we’ll have to start counting bodies in a different way.”

She’s more worried about the 10 p.m. cutoff on on-premise alcohol sales. ALOHO is a destination for late night drinks in Adams Morgan, and customers are accustomed to arriving around 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. “We’re going to nosedive,” McDaniel says. “Two hours is going to be a bit devastating on our bottom line.” 

Telling patrons that last call is approaching just as they arrive has been a challenge. Enforcing rules has proven so troublesome that local organizations are offering workers deescalation courses. “Even just midnight had been a real struggle,” McDaniel says. She’s says she’s going to invest significant time to alerting customers about the new restrictions on social media so they show up knowing the rules.

Jurisdictions across the country are debating whether limits on alcohol consumption hours are a sound strategy for reducing COVID-19 transmission. “The virus doesn’t care—day or night,” Mark Cullen, an infectious disease expert and former Stanford professor, told the San Francisco Chronicle last week. “It’s really just a way of getting at behavior modification, but it just seems like an odd one that doesn’t in and of itself address the problem.”

Several jurisdictions with curfews on alcohol consumption or operating hours have offered their own explanations to the media. California Governor Gavin Newsom stated that “activities conducted during 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. are often non-essential and more likely related to social activities and gatherings that have a higher likelihood of leading to reduced inhibition and reduced likelihood to adhere to COVID-19 preventive measures (e.g., wearing face coverings and maintaining physical distance).” 

In Minnesota, Governor Tim Walz defended his state’s curfew with statistics. “After 9:00 p.m., when we contact trace, the numbers are doubling. People are getting more lax, especially when alcohol is involved,” he said earlier this month.

Pueblo, Colorado, Mayor Nicholas Gradisar told the New York Times that his city’s curfew aims to “decrease mobility among those with the highest infection rate in the state, ages 20 to 50, who are also most likely to be out late at night.” 

Young people are contracting COVID-19 at higher rates in D.C. At a press briefing on Nov. 16, Bowser said the highest proportion of new cases in the prior week were among adults between the ages of 25 and 34, followed by adults between the ages of 35 and 44. The majority of people dying from COVID-19 or complications of the virus are 60 and older.

“We have been able to conduct a number of enforcement activities throughout our response for limited business operations and we see less compliance with rules later into the evening,” Bowser said of her decision to end alcohol sales after 10 p.m. starting Wednesday. The Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration regularly posts recorded violations online.

The rollercoaster ride of restrictions has been painful for restaurant owners and workers alike. Many continue to call for a federal bailout that would pay restaurants to close and restaurant workers to stay home while the virus remains a threat. There’s little hope that such aid is on the way. Locally, the District announced a new Bridge Fund that will provide $35 million in grants to the restaurant industry. It’s unclear what amount, if any, of the grants will be earmarked for payroll.

Any roll back in seating capacity or operating hours could mean fewer hours or more layoffs for hospitality industry employees. Many are still struggling to obtain unemployment benefits and others aren’t eligible for help. They have repeatedly asked for the city to fix its outdated unemployment system and to add more personnel to field calls before making any moves that would eliminate more jobs.

Many people, including local chefs Michael Schlow and Rob Rubba, are reacting to D.C.’s new restrictions on Twitter: